The impact of COVID-19 for people with sight loss has been devastating. Not only have they been prevented from spending time with the people closest to them, but many have also been unable to access vital treatment.
When lockdowns were initiated in early 2020, we were forced to put much of our work on hold. As these lockdowns have eased, our priority has been to restart our work quickly and safely, to provide much-needed diagnoses and treatment and to respond to the crisis, building stronger healthcare for the future.
But the pandemic is far from over, and it’s more important than ever for us to celebrate the importance of sight and raise awareness of global visual impairment.
For World Sight Day in October 2020, we shared how some of our country staff have adapted their work in the pandemic. One year on, we’re looking to see how their work has evolved now we’ve been living with COVID-19 for more than 18 months: read their stories below.
“COVID-19 has brought many challenges to our eye health programmes. There was a country-wide lockdown from March 2020, and all restrictions were withdrawn in August, so our programmes have struggled to meet targets and start new projects in the field. However, we’ve worked hard to evolve our way of working.
“We’ve been following guidance from the World Health Organization and the Bangladesh government on eye care protocols and have shared this with our partners. Using additional budget from Sightsavers, we’ve provided face masks, gloves, PPE and alcohol-based sanitisers. Our new policies take place at every stage, from the waiting room to the examination room and beyond.
“COVID-19 has also led to us working virtually. Many people in Bangladesh were not experienced working with computers, so we arranged IT training, which has improved everyone’s skills. This is something people will have long after the pandemic.
“It’s important that our work reaches the most isolated and vulnerable people. Our partner hospitals have relied on community volunteers to identify cataract patients in their area: we used to hold eye camps near people’s homes, but the government restricted mass gatherings, so these were not possible. The Civil Surgeon has now given verbal approval for these to continue: we’re committed to doing this as safely as possible, so we’ve also had written approval for our camps to begin.
“Our work has become more visible to the Civil Surgeon during the pandemic. Civil Surgeons are appointed by the government for every district in Bangladesh. They act as the health manager for their district and are responsible health service administration. In two districts, they visited our partner hospitals to monitor cleanliness and precautionary measures. We received positive feedback, which is a boost to us and our partners.” More from Bangladesh
“Since August, Sierra Leone has experienced a drastic reduction in the number of new COVID-19 cases and the government has relaxed several restrictions, including the nationwide curfew (from 11am to 5am) and the ban on public gatherings. Preventative and precautionary COVID-19 measures, such as social distancing and using face masks, are still being enforced across the country.
“But our programme activities have adapted to complement the government’s response to COVID-19. Our partners have supported and integrated COVID-19 awareness activities into their work. For example, messages on preventing avoidable blindness were adapted to also share information about the COVID-19 response. Our outreach activities and eye screenings have been an opportunity to raise awareness and share hygiene information. We’ve also provided guidance and resources about disability-inclusive emergency responses to our partners to ensure that their work leaves no one behind.
“Incorporating eye health into COVID-19 messaging means it has benefitted from extra social marketing and sensitisation. COVID-19 has increased the awareness of following infection prevention and control measures, and one result have been a greater emphasis on hygiene and hand washing. This has limited the spread of eye infections from touch and contact.” More from Sierra Leone
“Despite the Delta variant, the situation in Ghana has improved immensely in the past two months and the country has now received nearly five million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. So far, more than a million people have had their first dose, and more than 700,000 have been fully vaccinated.
“However, we’re still working to stop the spread of the virus and ensure our activities are safe. Standard operating procedures have been developed and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, hand sanitiser, gloves and tissue rolls have been supplied in health care settings. We’re also strictly following national COVID-19 protocols.
“But this has caused some delays in programme work due to the time it takes to complete risk assessments and get PPE. In February and March 2021, we were able to deliver treatments for river blindness in 76 districts and reached almost 4 million people through the Ghana Health Service. We trained 1,772 health workers to supervise community volunteers during mass drug administration, which far surpassed our target of 1,000 people. This training also included information about COVID-19’s symptoms and preventative measures. More than 12,000 community distributors were also given refresher training about treatment doses and taught about COVID-19 symptoms and precautions.
“The way we work has also changed. Before the pandemic, we mainly met face to face for meetings and workshops. However, we’ve discovered that virtual workshops also yield results, and they have advantages for our patients and beneficiaries. The pandemic has led us to do things differently so we can ensure our activities don’t contribute to the spread of the virus. It has also shown us the importance of planning for unforeseen circumstances, and we now believe we’re more adaptable to any future challenges.” More from Ghana
“Reported cases of COVID-19 are rising in Nigeria, but eye health programmes have adapted to work safely during the pandemic. Hand washing or using alcohol-based sanitiser is being strongly encouraged, and temperature checks and use of PPE is mandatory. Education about COVID-19 is also key, and the project team are committed to ensuring that precautions are still taken.
“Dr Amina Hassan Katsina, a paediatric ophthalmologist with the National Eye Centre, told us about the challenges of working. ‘It’s not comfortable using glasses, wearing a face shield, a face mask and using the microscope to perform surgeries,’ she explained. ‘But I and members of the team are taking all necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others.’
“Over the past year, the work of eye health projects in Nigeria has begun to increase since their sharp decline in 2020. The programme has stepped in to fill gaps and meet new areas of demand. For example, surgical camps are not normally part of the project in Nigeria, which is funded by People’s Postcode Lottery. But because of the lockdown, the backlog of children needing treatment soon grew. To meet this demand, a surgical camp was organised and held as soon as the lockdown was eased. This is just one example of our work evolving to help people during COVID-19 who need eye health services.” More from Nigeria
“On 24 September 2021, the president relaxed COVID-19 measures, which included allowing people out until 11pm, reopening schools and allowing audiences at football matches and the theatre. The vaccination programme has also been working well, and doctors, teachers, drivers and the elderly have been given priority. The second round of vaccinations is still in progress.
“Since 2020, we’ve adapted the way we work because of the pandemic. Our cataracts surgery targets were reduced from 120 operations a week to 90. But to keep up with demand, some camps ran for an extra week and were able to hold 175 operations over two weeks.
“COVID-19 precautions were taken and materials were distributed to health centres. This included soap, signalling tapes, information posters, PPE, masks, sanitiser gel and buckets for cleaning. Community health workers were given COVID-19 protection materials as they began going door to door to visit patients, which avoided large gatherings at the hospital.
“We also ensured that our work left no one behind. More than 200 families of people with disabilities were given buckets, soap and signalling tape. About 1,000 people with disabilities were given face masks.
“There’s been a few things that we’ve learned from the pandemic. COVID-19 has taught everyone the importance of a hygienic and clean environment, which has had a positive impact on eye health. We’ve seen that everyone has begun to value virtual means of communication such as Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp. These tools helped us keep in touch but also enabled our programme teams to successfully work from home.
“Virtual media such as radio and television became even more important as a way to share our messages. For World Sight Day in 2020, we took advantage of this and promoted eye health with two journalists from national television channels TVM and STV. For this year’s World Sight Day, we’re holding an exhibition of scientific work at a health centre, and a hospital is hosting a photo gallery of our eye camp activities.” More from Mozambique
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