Local Hope: Adapting in the Time of COVID

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In the misty highlands of Guatemala, poverty has for decades been a way of life. Lack of access to clean water, basic health services, and quality education coupled with unemployment that regularly tops 80 percent has made the cycle nearly impossible to break. But NGOs working in Guatemala like Local Hope that, under normal circumstances, empower the population by providing access to one or more of these essential services have made significant progress possible.

Since Local Hope’s arrival in 1992, we’ve been thrilled to provide scholarships that produced the very first high school and college graduates in the region. We’ve also provided low-cost, quality healthcare, and partnered with Rotary to provide potable water and sanitation to 23,000 people. Our Study Center, Computer Laboratory, Leadership Training Program, Montessori Preschool, Fair-Trade Weaving Cooperative and Clinic have hummed along making excellent progress, and our fundraising efforts had been keeping up.

Then came COVID…

An example of an Emergency Bag given to vulnerable families during the current COVID-19 crisis.

Nowhere has the 2020 COVID outbreak had a more devastating impact than on the people of rural Guatemala. But the reasons may be different than you think. 

The week of March 11, 2020—just as the U.S. saw its first 1,000 cases and the World Health Organization declared a pandemic—our team in Guatemala assessed the vulnerabilities of highland communities. We quickly understood that rather than COVID itself, food insecurity was the most immediate threat to those we serve.

This was due to the effect of lockdowns, food shortages, and price gouging. Though necessary to stop the spread, lockdowns kept the poor (who have little or no savings) from working, and suppressed food distribution. Related to this, the cost of essentials soared. Eggs, for example, quadrupled from Q1 (about 15 cents) to Q4 (60 cents) practically overnight!

For the critically poor who live on the equivalent of $1-$4 per day, the impacts were devastating. That very week, some of our constituents began going hungry. We knew that malnutrition and starvation were not far behind. Luckily, we had a skill set to draw upon, and were able to quickly pivot.

Back to Our Roots

During the Guatemalan Civil War, Local Hope provided emergency medical aid from tents along the roadside. We had to quickly adapt to changing conditions. Drawing on that early experience, we were prepared to make the first distribution of our Emergency Food Security Operation (EFSO). On March 18, just one week after the pandemic was declared:

  • We identified 435 exceptionally vulnerable families across a dozen villages. We also planned for “walk ups” of families previously unknown to us but who were in dire need of food.
  • We discerned essential items for our Emergency Bags to last a family of 5 for a month. They included foods, soap, and disinfectants. Reliable information about COVID was also provided. We enhanced available information and created a flyer in Spanish and Mám, the local language.
  • We began a radio campaign in Mám to share reliable information on COVID prevention. The aim was also to squelch misinformation. This included “radio waves” being a cause, and “drinking drops of chlorine” a cure.
  • We got our weavers working, and soon added masks to the Emergency Bags to helps slow the virus’ spread.
  • At home we put out the word to supporters. We were able to raise funds to launch our EFSO and sustain it for a number of months.
Giving out Emergency Bags to vulnerable families across a dozen villages.

Overcoming Obstacles

Organizing the Emergency Bags for delivery to over a dozen villages.

Among challenges of our first distributions were collecting enough food, roadblocks, hoarding, the challenges of obtaining permission to buy wholesale, and a paucity of emergency protective gear for our staff. Drawing on our connections with local government, we were soon granted permission to both receive wholesale shipments and to travel to conduct our EFSO. We obtained protective gear with help from a generous partner NGO.

At this writing, the Local Hope’s EFSO has served more than 12,500 people across 42 villages, some of which are featured in this short VIDEO.

Thanks to generous support, we’ve been able to continue the EFSO, and are funded to do so through mid-July. Based on evidence provided by the Medical Committee of our Board of Directors, we had early suspicions that we might be dealing with COVID through the fall, or even longer.

Leslie Baer Dinkel is the Executive Director of Local Hope Guatemala with an expertise in sustainable community development. The story of Local Hope against the backdrop of the brutal Guatemalan Civil War is told in her best-selling book, Hope Dancing: Finding purpose and a place to serve among the Maya