When Kou was interviewed, the UNN-REACH response to COVID-19 was in process. Since then, the country-specific workplan has been approved as of 15th May and includes dissemination of COVID-19 nutrition messages to counties and health facilities and support to national coordination mechanisms with partnering UN agencies (FAO and WFP) and establish a new National Food Assistance Agency. Kou’s work to strengthen the capacity of Liberia’s SUN Secretariat would now entail helping those government staff to host and manage regular meetings through Zoom or Skype. The updated workplan also includes provisions to support resource mobilization for nutrition and continue UNN-REACH processes, such as the Policy and Plan Overview (PPO) and the Nutrition Stakeholder and Action Mapping. In addition, other UNN-REACH processes that involve gathering and travel or missions have been restructured.
This series of articles was originally designed to capture the myriad factors a UNN-REACH facilitator contends with on any given day, but the pandemic has changed the nature of the interview, as it is changing much of the world. Instead of a straightforward look at her daily challenges, Kou gave us a picture of her work in context; what it was on that day compared to what it was before the pandemic. Here, in her words, is a picture of her current challenges, how they contrast with what was happening before COVID-19, and a hypothesis of what the next year might hold.
UNN-REACH: Tell us about today.
Kou: Public offices and schools are closed right now and I am working from home. All REACH activities are on hold until a revision is done to move forward. A conversation with the SUN Secretariat to continue current activities at the multi-sectoral level disclosed that [the] majority of the network members are challenged with adapting to the new way of working at home since many of them cannot afford internet support from home. These are things we are thinking about as we revise our plans. We are thinking of sending out email questionnaires to gather more information, instead of face to face meetings.
In Liberia, the majority of Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Multi-Sectoral Platform (MSP) staff don’t have internet support or smartphones for Zoom or WhatsApp. We’ve been challenged with that since the lock down. We haven’t been able to meet. We cannot discuss [COVID-19 related health messages sent from headquarters] that we have and want to adapt to the local context. Messages such as, ‘What should you do if you’re breastfeeding and you’re suspected or infected?’
Our government counterparts don’t have the technology to continue meetings. We want to support them so we can carry on. Technology is the main hurdle right now. There is a communication platform set up for the COVID-19 context. Whatever communication there is, goes through that platform.
UNN-REACH: How was your agenda progressing before the lockdown?
Kou: REACH’s presence in Liberia has given the nutrition programme attention and the momentum started rising with REACH presence. REACH reactivated the SUN Secretariat, started by engaging various stakeholders, and holding meetings, and finally they became [a] multi-sectoral platform with membership from all sectors.
Another success was engaging with lawmakers to get their attention for nutrition. During a visit from SUN Global Coordinator [and Assistant-Secretary General] Gerda Verburg, on March 7-9, 2019, she met with the President. This gave the President the awareness that nutrition is on the global agenda and Liberia is featured. The government has already placed nutrition as a priority, reducing stunting in particular, so there was need to focus and work with the Ministry of Health and the SUN Secretariat to achieve this. The President nominated some top officials we could work with, and in May 2019, we engaged 33 lawmakers. Presently, we have one active nutrition focal person in the House of Representatives. To add we have started work on developing a multi-sectoral Nutrition strategic plan.
Liberia is divided into 15 counties, engaged through the civil society organizations (CSO) and SUN civil society alliance, with representatives from health, WASH, education, and other sectors. We were able to visit seven counties where civil society actions on nutrition activities have started. The engagement we started at the county level was rapidly gaining momentum and [unfortunately it was also interrupted]. In one of the counties, the superintendent was so impressed with the meeting we had with them in last January, that he asked for a follow-up meeting with the SUN Secretariat before COVID-19 shut everything down.