As countries pursue different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, community-level action is vital to ensuring that persons with disabilities are not left behind. In rural Tanzania, Fall 2019 Professional Fellows alum Archy Gomba is working tirelessly to deliver accurate public health guidance and protective gear to people who cannot access inclusive health systems or accessible, trustworthy news. The local response initiatives he is leading offer an exciting model for how disability leaders can promote public safety and provide essential information and tools to their communities in especially challenging times.
Growing up with a disability himself, Archy understands the challenges that many people with disabilities in Tanzania face. He lives in Shirati, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania’s northwestern Mara Region, approximately 75 kilometers (46 miles) from the Kenyan border. Archy is the founder and director of the Shirati for Active Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (SARDO), an NGO that fights discrimination and empowers persons with disabilities in northwestern Tanzania. SARDO has also led a prominent WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) project in Shirati, where approximately 20% of the community has consistent access to clean water.
SARDO has dedicated much of its resources in 2020 to filling gaps in local COVID-19 response efforts, and the local situation poses many difficult challenges. As a rural area of Tanzania, the Mara Region has especially limited access to health resources, and there are many pre-existing gaps in inclusion and accessibility, as well as weaknesses in general infrastructure. The Tanzanian government’s response to the pandemic has complicated matters further, as officials declared the country to be COVID-free in June, revoked public safety requirements, and stopped sharing critical data about COVID transmission rates. These policies have been extremely controversial and politicized, and many Tanzanians remain at risk while health workers and researchers are not receiving vital government support for their response efforts.
SHIRATI RORYA TANZANIA – LEADING INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY RESPONSE
Archy and his team at SARDO are confronting these problems in Shirati with their own COVID-19 community response program. It was funded via a partnership with the Global Environmental Health Lab (GEH Lab), a U.S.-based international NGO that promotes capacity-building and sustainable development. Archy and SARDO have conducted many activities that promote public safety and awareness about COVID-19, including:
- Developing 100 public health posters about handwashing in English and Swahili and disseminating them strategically through Shirati
- Distributing face-masks and flyers on how to prevent COVID-19 to 30 persons with disabilities in Shirati and their families/caregivers;
- Demonstrating to the community on how to communicate proper handwashing techniques;
- Enabling self-employed women with disabilities to strengthen and customize their skillsets during the pandemic.
Archy developed the initiative with GEH Lab’s Samantha Noor, a former researcher on intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of Southern California (USC) Brain & Creativity Institute. Ms. Noor has also worked with SARDO on previous community health campaigns.
SUPPORTING DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT DURING COVID-19
Supporting employment of persons with disabilities is especially important to inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery, although it is often under-addressed. Archy is helping small local businesses in Shirati that are run by women with disabilities survive COVID-19 by enabling their owners to access specialized trainings and secure seed capital. Women with disabilities can thus shore up their businesses despite the turmoil of the COVID-19 economy and develop vocational skills that will help succeed as small entrepreneurs. In his work in this area, Archy has drawn widely upon knowledge of customized employment he gained via his U.S. Fellowship, which he spent at the University of Iowa Center for Disabilities and Development (Iowa UCEDD). The lessons he learned there have influenced his approach to specialized job skills development for women with disabilities, and his initiative shows that support for disability employment is important for COVID-19 recovery.
UN INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
On December 3, 2020, Archy and SARDO celebrated the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities by distributing fabric face-masks made by small business owners with disabilities and holding an event to promote inclusive COVID-19 health response. Archy aspires to take this project beyond his hometown of Shirati next. News of SARDO’s work has already reached local government officials, as well as the Member of Parliament for Rorya District. By showing the importance of the disability community, Archy hopes long-term changes can be made through inclusive policy reform at the local and national levels.