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Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief preparing response to coronavirus in Africa: ‘This is a moment of unity’

Medical supplies from China are delivered to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Sunday. Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief is working on moving supplies to Africa to help the continent battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Medical supplies from China are delivered to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Sunday. Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief is working on moving supplies to Africa to help the continent battle the coronavirus pandemic. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

From her home in the shadow of Camden Yards, Allyson Bear is working on a complex problem: how to bring resources and humanitarian aid from Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief to African countries as people there cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Bear, a vice president for Lutheran World Relief, said weak health systems, widespread poverty and crowded urban slums put Africans at extreme risk.

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“This crisis is so unique, because it is happening everywhere at once,” said Bear, who has worked for 20 years in public health.

Responding to emergencies typically involves marshaling resources from an unaffected area to bring to an affected area, she said. In this case, communities are focused on their needs and competing for high-demand supplies, such as masks, medical gloves and ventilators.

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In Africa, the need is great and growing, Bear said. While confirmed cases are not showing up in great numbers relative to other places, that’s due to a lag in testing, rather than a sign the virus is not spreading there. Worldwide some 526,000 people have tested positive for the new coronavirus and nearly 24,000 people had died as of Thursday night.

Lutheran World Relief, which merged last year with Washington-based IMA World Health, is on the ground in multiple African countries. But, Bear said, getting specific aid to the continent is a twofold problem. Borders throughout Africa have been closed to airplanes and ships to slow the spread of the virus. Plus, supplies worldwide are being channeled to wealthier countries like the United States.

“At the moment, when we need to be moving people and resources towards Africa to help them deal with this crisis, we can’t get there,” Bear said.

The goal for now, Bear said, is to adapt programs already underway to provide outreach in response to the pandemic.

The organization runs a $140 million operation with 550 employees from its headquarters at 700 Light St. in Baltimore. It works in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia with a mission to help people stay healthy and teach them to feed and support themselves so they can become stabilized in their native countries.

In Kenya, for example, Bear said, its teams provide health care for people living with HIV in the slums of Nairobi. In response to the pandemic, she said, they provide multiple months of the HIV drugs at a single visit, educate people about the importance of hand-washing and repurpose protective equipment used for HIV to help with the new coronavirus.

Going forward, Bear said, the sooner resources can be freed up in the U.S., the faster help can be sent to Africa. Besides donating to worldwide causes, she said, people in the U.S. can improve the situation elsewhere by contributing to the slow of the coronavirus’ spread here.

“This is a moment of unity,” Bear said. “We are all in this together. Every single person, in Baltimore, in Maryland, in the world, has a role to play. We are not victims. We can be heroes in this response.”

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