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The people versus the pandemic: community organisations in the fight against Covid-19 in Freetown

By Emmanuel Osuteye, Braima Koroma, Joseph Macarthy, Sulaiman Kamara & Abu Conteh

Introduction: Fragile but not broken

In Sierra Leone, the mention of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic immediately evokes very grim memories of its recent brutal battle with Ebola in 2014-15. Like the two other countries that became the epicentres of the epidemic in West Africa, namely Liberia and Guinea, the healthcare system had suffered years of underinvestment and did not cope well. There were not enough surveillance systems, response capabilities, public health infrastructure, or diagnostic capabilities in place. A lot has changed since then, and it is clear that the country learnt valuable lessons from the Ebola experience. Notably, improvements have been made in surveillance systems and reporting mechanisms, and the National Disaster Management Department has been empowered to operationalise emergency response systems. The government launched a National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, which focused primarily on strengthening surveillance at the three official points of entry and deployed it even before the country recorded its first case on 31st March 2020. Arguably, these measures played a precautionary role; they helped in the delay of the onset of the pandemic and bought vital time for other, centralised government responses. However, the scale of infrastructural improvements since Ebola, gaps in technical capacity, as well as ongoing challenges of affordability and accessibility, particularly for the urban poor, leave healthcare in Freetown and Sierra Leone still in a very fragile state.


Figure 1: Distribution of COVID-19 cases in Sierra Leone as of 29/04/20 (Source: Government of Sierra Leone)

Yet another urban burden

Sierra Leone was one of the last countries in Africa to record a COVID-19 case, and overall has recorded relatively few cases (116 as of 29/04/20) out of the 30000+ cases on the Africa continent. But, like many other countries, urban centres are already bearing the biggest burden. Informal settlements in Freetown are particularly at risk, because residents live in precarious housing conditions on marginal lands, which often lack basic services. They are trapped within different cycles of health, environmental and socio-economic hazards of an expanding city that has fallen behind on adequate planning. Residents in informal centres of Freetown were also the hardest hit by Ebola and other seasonal, recurring health risks. In the face of COVID-19, vulnerabilities of informal settlements are even more apparent, because conventional mitigation measures such as social distancing, self-isolation and regular handwashing are particularly difficult, impractical or economically devastating for residents and a threat to the survival of informal livelihoods. The urban lens of the projected impact of COVID-19 has been very dire, especially for the approximately 40% of the city’s population who reside in very dense clusters (see Figure 2 below).

However, despite the known vulnerabilities of informal settlements, their resourcefulness has yet again been brought to the fore in dealing with the threat of COVID-19, highlighting the critical role community groups play in managing everyday risks.


Figure 2: Map of settlement types across Freetown, where approximately 40% of the population live in dense informal settlements (Source: World Bank, 2019)

Bracing for impact: Community responses in Freetown

Informal settlement residents have considerable agency on the ground through elaborate and well organised systems and structures. They have become the backbone of several interventions done at scale which plug development and disaster risk reduction deficits in urban areas. Informal settlers have adapted differently at different levels of leadership and cooperation for the co-production of local needs, which could be harnessed to help with COVID-19 interventions. Additionally, they maintain strong social networks within communities and with service providers (such as NGOs and the government), which they have used to their advantage to meet basic needs like access to water.

Notably, the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and the Centre for Dialogue on Human Settlement and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA) have been instrumental in providing and facilitating leadership of community groups with a focus on informal settlements. These groups were critical in the fight against Ebola, and have since played a gradually increasing role in the city’s development vision, especially through engaged efforts with the Freetown City Council (FCC) and the Office of the Mayor. FEDURP coordinates with the support of CODOHSAPA a number of community structures including Community Development Committees, Local Networks, Savings Groups and Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMC) in nearly all informal settlements of the city. SLURC has also played an important role in curating spaces for continuous learning and relationship building between FEDURP and residents. This includes mixed groups of community actors referred to as “Community Learning Platforms”[1], which are operationalised as part of the KNOW programme, and which collectively build capacities to address urban risk.

As the country adjusts to the reality of dealing with COVID-19, three critical contributions of community organisation aimed at minimising the spread and effects of the pandemic are worth celebrating.


  1. Information management: Besides the very useful job of community sensitisation and awareness creation efforts, community groups have been instrumental in designing, managing and disseminating information about COVID-19 and its appropriate mitigation. This has been done at a very early stage in the pandemic to bridge information flows from official government channels and residents. This is another important lesson learnt from the management of the Ebola outbreak, where unfortunately the void in information flows led to the spread of misinformation, distorted health messages and even created panic in communities. It has become necessary for communities to understand that COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic, but at the same time appreciate that it is not the same as Ebola. Maintaining calm and clarity, and working towards a contextualised translation and discussion in the local language have been appreciated. The Government has also stepped up its communication efforts by creating only two official channels and managing regular briefings. Community residents, who have the means, are also now being directed to the official social media accounts to source and verify information about COVID-19 whilst FEDURP continues to provide regular community briefings to bridge the digital divide.

  2. Managing ground level politics and power relations: What has become apparent in disaster management efforts, especially in urban informal areas, is the need to recognise and address local level politics and dynamics that would be affected by any intervention. In Freetown, community leadership is a multi-layered construct ranging from traditional, religious leaders to elected representation etc and reflecting the authority to which different constituents subscribe to. Recognising the agency of different forms of leadership and being able to leverage on that for disaster risk preparedness and reduction is key. For instance, FEDURP and its community groups have worked closely with religious leaders to ensure the closure of places of worship, schools and public places as part of social distancing measures. Whereas strict self-isolation and social distancing remain a challenge, prohibiting public gatherings such as religious worship has been seen as a lower hanging fruit. Community groups have also played a gatekeeping role, supporting frontline responders and security agents to conduct contact tracing without reprisals or their actions misconstrued. Community groups have helped to build trust in external systems and contributed to the success of small-scale community-level surveillance and self-reporting.

  3. Activating and sustaining humanitarian efforts: Community groups have also played an instrumental role in mobilising resources and providing assistance to the most vulnerable, both directly and indirectly. In a direct way, community groups in informal settlements such as Thompson Bay and Oloshoro pooled financial resources together to provide drinking water during the official lockdown. Similarly, in Palmoronko, the community groups bought two 2,000 litre water tanks to water for domestic use. Portee-Rokupa repositioned and filled 10,000 litre water tanks in accessible areas of the community. During the lockdown itself, the community self-organised to implement strict measures to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distancing at the water collection points, which was supervised, following strict allocations capped per household. Moreover, the Portee Ebola Response Alliance Volunteer (PERAV)[2], a group established during the Ebola outbreak, was reactivated. It bought 3,000 sachets of drinking water and distributed them to homes during the lockdown, mostly targeting the elderly and people with disabilities.


Figure 3: Representatives of FEDURP and CODOHSAPA meeting with the Mayor of Freetown to plan humanitarian support for vulnerable residents during the lockdown. Photo: CODOHSAPA, (2020).

Indirectly, FEDURP and CODOHSAPA have also contributed to the FCC’s response plans and strategies, supported by GOAL-Sierra Leone to establish community kitchens in Portee-Rokupa, Crab Town, Kolleh Town and Grey Bush (CKG) and Cockle Bay. These kitchens provide food parcels to informal communities during the period of official total lockdown. The invitation from the office of the Mayor legitimises the value of community knowledge in the fight against COVID-19 and capitalises on the strength of community organisations to make such distribution of relief efforts work. Again, community organisations enhance the role of external humanitarian agencies and shift the dynamic of communities as mere recipients of support to active participants in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery. For instance, CODOHSAPA has been identified as a partner by Y Care International to support livelihood opportunities and buffer informal settlement residents who are at the highest economic risk during the crisis, making yet another practical use of community knowledge for targeted action.

Figure 4 (left): Food preparation in an open community kitchen in the Portee Rokupa settlement, to be distributed during lockdown. Photo: Yirah Conteh (2020)

Figure 5 (right): Cooked food from community kitchens is served at designated points in Portee Rokupa. Photo Yirah Conteh, (2020).

Conclusion:

The resourcefulness, strength and value of community organisations in Freetown cannot be overlooked. Their elaborate network and structures have become invaluable in helping communities in disaster risk preparedness, reduction and related needs as well as bridge development deficits in the access to justice, water and sanitation etc. Their contributions might be largely informal, but they are widely respected locally as they serve as a vital intermediary between the state and the people.

Endnotes [1] Community Learning Platforms comprise ward councillors, the ward development committee, disabled representatives, traditional leaders, representatives of women and youth groups, FEDURP and professionals

[2] PERAV is a loose alliance of networks of CBO volunteers to deal with the Ebola crisis. They provide support to INGOs and MDAs, such as the MoHS, SLP and WHO, with contact tracing, quarantine processes and the distribution of relief items.

Recommended further reading:

  • Allen, A., Osuteye, E., Koroma, B. and Lambert, R. (2020) ‘Unlocking urban risk trajectories: Participatory approaches to uncover risk accumulation in Freetown’s informal settlements’, in Pelling, M (ed) Breaking cycles of Risk Accumulation in African Cities, UN-Habitat: Nairobi

  • De Waal, A (2020) ‘COVID-19 in Africa: “Know your Epidemic, Act on its Politics.” Read here

  • Richards, P. (2020) ‘What Might Africa Teach the World? Covid-19 and Ebola Virus Disease Compared’ Read here

  • Wilkinson, A (2020) ‘The impact of COVID-19 in informal settlements – are we paying enough attention?’ Read here

  • Freetown City Page


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