By Olivia Acosta

Prevention, preparedness, early action, and response to disasters and crises are at the core of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). According to Mr. Jean Urbain Zoa, Secretary-General of the Cameroon Red Cross (CRC), one of the main challenges of the National Society is to be prepared for any emergency: “Better preparedness will help anticipate crises and disasters and build capacity to provide an integrated response. Preparedness can save lives, mitigate the severity of a crisis and engage the population and empower them to manage future disasters”.

Local actors are best placed to reduce disaster risk and to take early action when disasters strike. The commitment of the CRC volunteers, who support their own communities during emergencies, is essential – but the organization doesn’t forget that they, too, might need help. “The Covid-19 pandemic has affected some staff and volunteers of our organization, but we are trying to give the best response to the increasing needs in the most affected communities”, said the Secretary-General.

Indeed, nothing is the same since the pandemic arrived in Cameroon last year. Um Antoine, CRC first aid trainer, explains that “People in the communities are very afraid of Covid-19. They don’t want to be in touch with their neighbors to avoid contagion… the most disadvantaged people feel very lonely, some of them without any support or assistance”.

Several NGOs and organizations that used to bring relief to the area have left. Still, Red Cross volunteers continue to respond to the outbreak, carrying out activities such as house and school disinfection and encouraging the population to practice handwashing and other protective measures. Volunteers also organize programs through community radio to ensure that information on reducing the spread of the pandemic reaches a large part of the population, and specialists are available to address questions from listeners. CRC also works to stop the spread of misinformation, which can be spread through rumors circulating in the community. In addition, community feedback is collected and analyzed to meet information needs evolving over time.

Cameroon Red Cross is not just responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. CRC has been simultaneously responding to cholera outbreaks over the past year in the country.  Through experience, the National Society knows the importance of detecting an epidemic before it spreads to save lives, protect livelihoods, and sustain long-term development. Well-trained and motivated CRC volunteers like Um Antoine visit members of their own communities, providing sensitization on the signs and symptoms of acute watery diarrhea, the seasonality of cholera outbreaks, and the need to report severe cases to volunteers or health centers as soon as possible.  “We use available communication channels like megaphones, posters, social networks, and the radio to disseminate protection measures against cholera and raise awareness about transmission through contaminated food or water. We also work with the population to adopt hygiene measures to eradicate cholera from their communities”.

To reinforce its response in the fight against Covid-19, cholera, and other emergencies, CRC must continuously strengthen the capacity of its volunteers and staff at headquarters and in branches. Over the past years, CRC’s leadership, management, and operational teams have discussed the importance of being prepared. According to Mr. Renauld Bodiong, Director of Cooperation of the Cameroon Red Cross: “The effectiveness of the response depends on the initial preparation of the National Society. Therefore, it is important, and even essential, for a National Society to engage in the Preparedness for Effective Response (PER Approach) that is an institutional approach to NS Preparedness to assess systematically, measure, and analyze its strengths and gaps response system to take action. Always trying to work from an effective, proactive and innovative perspective”.

Upon request from the CRC, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Swedish and the French Red Cross joined forces to organize, as part of the PER Approach process, an assessment of CRC’s capacity to prepare for and respond to various types of hazards, and support the CRC with the identification of its existing strengths and opportunities for further development.

The COVID-19 context posed a serious problem for the process to start, especially with the travel restrictions put in place as part of COVID-19 preventive measures everywhere.

As facilitators could not travel to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, due to travel restrictions related to Covid-19 in the first quarter of 2021, they provided technical support remotely from Canada, Greece, Russia, and Switzerland. Cameroon Red Cross branches don’t have internet access, and organizing interactive sessions remotely represented quite a challenge for all involved. Brand-new teleconferencing equipment was purchased and set up in Yaoundé, where 36 CRC participants were able to gather in a large meeting room, adhering to physical distancing recommendations. In addition, eight participants also got connected remotely from far regions of the country with the support of IFRC field offices.

Over the course of 5 days, the National Society checked its capacity to prepare for and respond to various types of emergencies, conducted an in-depth analysis of strengths and gaps, and built consensus around key priorities which require urgent attention. These priorities will form the basis of a work plan and feed into the National Society’s strategic and operational planning and fundraising processes.

According to Bodiong, “It was very interesting to work online for the first time and be able to listen to everyone’s input. For example, we identified that warehouses built in high-risk areas with pre-positioned equipment, well-trained volunteers, and adapted procedures would allow the CRC to respond effectively as quickly as possible to assist the victims of floods in many regularly affected departments of the far north region and prevent cholera outbreaks”.

The Cameroon Red Cross is now using evidence and recommendations from the PER Approach to guide the continuous strengthening of its disaster management systems to be better prepared to respond to emergencies that may occur in the future.