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Coronavirus impacting work of overseas aid agency



John Burger - published on 03/04/20

Catholic Relief Services taking measures both to protect its workers and help contain spread of COVID-19

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the Catholic Church in the United States, is looking at ways to help contain the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 in the areas it works, even as it is imposing safety measures meant to protect its international staff from the virus.

“Amid the fast-moving, worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is ramping up its global public health programming to prevent and mitigate the spread of the deadly virus while at the same time taking proactive measures to protect the safety of its staff, which are spread across more than 110 countries,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are doing everything possible to leverage our vast global footprint to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus and its impact,” said Sean Callahan, CRS’ president and CEO. “In addition, we are making changes to our business operations so that we can continue to function efficiently while also making sure we are able to serve those most in need.”

CRS said it is taking measures to safeguard its staff by restricting all but the most mission-critical travel, with contingency operational plans in place should the disease take hold in any of the countries where the organization operates. For instance, in Cambodia, CRS is piloting a work-from-home arrangement, with the aim of replicating continuity plans elsewhere if needed. In addition, CRS is encouraging all staff to continue good hygiene practices, like diligent hand-washing.

The agency is gearing up its response in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria. Activities will include risk awareness and hygiene education campaigns, as well as the distribution of hygiene supplies like soap. In Afghanistan, where CRS had to suspend its education programs for children in camps, CRS is working with local health agencies to educate those families on preventing infection, and at distributing 60,000 bars of soap.

The outbreak, which has affected people throughout the world, is having an impact on international travel — and missionary and faith-based aid agencies are no exception. But CRS has had experience with epidemics in the past, notably the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In that health crisis, CRS and its local partners ran public awareness campaigns and worked with religious and local leaders to prevent the spread of misinformation.

COVID-19 also promises to make certain situations in the world even more complicated, such as the refugee situation in the Middle East.

“The refugee, displaced and war-affected populations we serve throughout this region have endured years of hardship and are particularly vulnerable to any new threat such as this virus, so CRS is working with local authorities, partner agencies and local communities throughout the region to support prevention efforts aimed at improving hygiene, awareness and knowledge of the disease,” said Kevin Hartigan, CRS Regional Director for the Middle East and Europe.

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