Aiding COVID-19 Response Across Africa

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the world, the MIT community is innovating new methods to leverage their skills and expertise to engage, respond, and aid in a multitude of capacities. For example, DUSP MCP candidate Samra Lakew and DUSP alumna Fitse Gelaye (MCP ‘18) are leading elements of the volunteer effort to enhance Ethiopia’s capacity to respond to the COVID-19 crisis through the Ethiopia COVID-19 Response Team (ECRT).

The ECRT started with a single tweet calling upon the Ethiopian diaspora tech community. From that call to action, the ECRT has evolved into a multidisciplinary team of 1,700 volunteers working globally to collaborate in the effort to reduce morbidity and mortality, using a combination of digital tools and traditional responses.

Lakew, is part of ECRT’s operations team that is responsible for setting the mission, creating partnerships, and facilitating projects within the informal organization. She is responsible for driving the Civic Engagement and Delivery workstreams -- overseeing public outreach and dissemination of knowledge through their blog and managing the distribution of care packages to vulnerable individuals..

“Being a part of the ECRT was a natural decision. It’s been amazing to see volunteers from around the world come together in the call to action to assist Ethiopia,” said Lakew. “We started out seven weeks ago with the goal of recommending digital public health tools and awareness campaigns and since then we’ve evolved to connecting our volunteers with locally-based partners on the grounds and supporting those efforts with tech where appropriate.”

In two months, ECRT has launched multiple new initiatives, including:

  • The Africa COVID-19 Response Toolkit (ACRT), a suite of 10 open-source, purpose-built suite of tools for reporting and tracking covid-19.
  • A donation drive for clothing and essential items for people in government quarantine centers.
  • A Crowdfunding campaign to raise money for ventilator repair, care package delivery, and essential items for healthcare workers.
  • Awareness campaigns on Ethiopian Television and social media for the Ethiopia public on COVID-19 public health measure and in response to growing discrimination against health works.
  • A hotline and textbot for Ethiopian healthcare providers to access tele-health services for psychiatric care.

“This experience has shown me how critical planners are to crisis management, disaster response, and technology-- especially in product management. Planners synthesize information from various disciplines, set scope, assess gaps, and bring in the necessary expertise to address them.,” reflected Lakew. “I’m focused not only on what ECRT is doing but how it is being done so that people’s needs are put first. I find myself relying on skills acquired from courses like Southern Urbansims and Participatory Action Research on a daily basis”

Gelaye joined ECRT to support the development of a vulnerability assessment for Ethiopia’s capital. Fitse, who currently works and teaches in the field of urban water resilience, was inspired by a previous DUSP project - Manos a la Obra- to create a centralized resource for identifying vulnerability and resources to guide Addis Ababa’s efforts to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.

In Addis, where only 20% of the city has access to a sewer grid, water rations are a norm. Communal toilets and public kiosks are critical access points for basic water and sanitation services. In this context, the definition of vulnerability required expansion to encompass access to basic infrastructure and the economic background of at-risk citizens. However, Addis's urban fabric also provides unique advantages such as community structures that are embedded in the society - for instance, community block groups and religious institutions - which provide a traditionally under utilized asset to dispel misinformation and enhance the efficacy of distributing resources.

“The pandemic is not a crisis that exists outside the systemic inequalities of access and economic hardship, and any response we have to it must take this into account“ says Gelaye. “I am currently using my intimate knowledge of Addis Ababa, the interdisciplinary thinking I refined and further developed at DUSP, and the mapping skills of my colleagues to create a set of publicly available maps that paint an accurate picture of need and inspire responses that go beyond surface level interventions. Although access to up-to-date data is a big issue in Addis, we hope to use participatory mapping and leverage private sector projects such as Facebook’s ‘Data for Good Project’ to complete the missing gap, creating a data source that can be a huge asset in future planning endeavours.”

Additional teams & leaders across Operations, Projects, Marketing, Research, & Data Storytelling include: Mike Endale, Sefanit Tades, Kenean Assefa, Nati Abebe, Yonas Beshawred, Pomi Tefera, Jerusalem Darkera, Yonas Dinkneh, Noura Liben, Rediate Tekeste, Luladey Takele Teshome, Hana Erkou, Zebib Teklyes, Dr. Yabebal Fantaye & Teddy Hailemichael.

Visit the Ethiopia COVID-19 Response Team website to learn more about the initiative and check out their blog (also named the Africa COVID-19 Response Toolkit) to read about our work and access our open source tools.