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Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services striving to continue worldwide impact during coronavirus pandemic

As the impact of the coronavirus continues to grow in Maryland and the United States, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services is striving to ensure that other countries are as prepared as possible for what the virus brings their way.

Amid the pandemic, CRS, a nonprofit that serves as the overseas relief and development arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has worked to not only keep its employees spread throughout the world safe, but support those in need, the organization’s president and CEO said.

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“People think we should close and go inward and have supply chains and assist ... ‘our people,’” Sean Callahan said. “We as an international agency see ‘our people’ as globally."

Worldwide, Catholic Relief representatives have educated numerous communities on the virus, provided cleaning supplies and installed handwashing stations while teaching proper techniques. The organization is working to protect staff members abroad, Callahan said, especially given that many of them are in countries with inadequate health systems.

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“We want to model the best behaviors, and so we’ve been limiting movement, working more virtually,” Callahan said. “But we need to have access for continuity of operations to continue some of the lifesaving work that we do regularly.”

In Afghanistan, CRS has distributed more than 60,000 bars of soap. In Kenya, the relief group has trained 3,500 health care workers in the nation’s capital on how to fight the virus. In Sierra Leone, it has prepared take-home meals for the families of 50,000 students.

Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order that will go into effect on Saturday, that everyone must wear a mask in retail stores.

Those virus-fighting efforts come on top of the regular work the organization would be performing at this time of year. As a result, though, CRS has “adjusted all of our programming that’s currently going on,” Callahan said.

In places where the organization distributes a weekly supply of food to families, Catholic Relief is increasing the size of the supply to last a month to minimize physical contact and encourage social distancing. CRS also has reduced any programs that require large gatherings, and if a gathering occurs, it’s outdoors to allow participants to space out. Staff members also continue to supply needed medication, particularly for those undergoing antiretroviral therapy as part of HIV or AIDS treatment.

“We want to make sure that people who may have compromised situations, whether it’s nutritional issues or malaria and things like that, that they get their appropriate treatment that they’ve been getting all along,” Callahan said.

Malaria in particular poses a challenge. The World Health Organization issued a report last week noting that if countries prone to the disease don’t continue to get the support they need during the pandemic, 20 years of medical progress fighting malaria could be lost.

“Already, health systems and health facilities are overloaded with patients, but that is going to be amplified in the high malaria transmission season, which a lot of Africa, West Africa is coming into,” said Suzanne Van Hulle, the global malaria adviser for CRS. “It will not only have a huge negative impact on the battle to combat COVID-19, but it’s also going to have a huge negative effect on kids and pregnant women who are very vulnerable to death due to malaria. ...

“If we don’t do anything, we’ll have way more deaths due to malaria than we would due to COVID-19.”

As result, Catholic Relief has changed its practices for distributing much needed goods such as malaria drugs and insecticide-treated mosquito nets, Van Hulle said. It’s also using digital tools to perform more remote training, she said.

Van Hulle is working as part of CRS’s coronavirus response team and did the same during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. She said that for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries Ebola hit hardest, the ongoing pandemic is similar.

“I know that right from the beginning, even before Sierra Leone had its first confirmed case, they were already starting to stop shaking hands and adapt [to the] kind of the old behaviors that they had during the Ebola outbreak,” Van Hulle said. “They knew what potential activities would prevent them from [getting] the virus, so for them, this was a little bit like muscle memory.

“But for the rest of the world, this is hugely different.”

CRS is trying to help as many countries as it can during this uncertain time, making sure that nations cannot only protect themselves against the coronavirus, but also whatever other challenges they could face in the coming months.

“We are a global community,” Callahan said. “We need to make sure that even the least among us has that assistance.”

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