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There’s no question about it: This year had plenty of bleak headlines to offer.
But good things happened as well, often behind the scenes. Ordinary people helping neighbors. Health providers caring for others, often at enormous personal risk. Companies stepping up to support the response. People from all over the world ready to do good.
Here are a few of the stories Direct Relief has had the privilege of witnessing in a challenging time:
When wildfires devastated Australia, communities rallied to help one another. In the New South Wales community of Picton, located about 50 miles southwest of Sydney, many stepped up to help, from volunteer firefighters to residents who’d lost homes, Direct Relief’s Lara Cooper reported.
When a series of earthquakes rocked Puerto Rico in 2020, Minerva Rodriguez, a pastor at Iglesia Pentecostal de Jesucristo in Yauco, jumped into action. She and others helped form an outdoor shelter for people to stay as aftershocks made being indoors unsafe. Evacuees of all ages convened to provide mutual aid to others, and a nurse who was among the evacuees kept track of blood pressure and other health issues, Direct Relief’s Talya Meyers reported.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, one UC Santa Barbara professor coordinated with Direct Relief to get a shipment of medical supplies to Wenzhou, China. Mayfair Yang, a professor of religious studies and East Asian culture at UCSB, has done fieldwork in Wenzhou since the 1990s, and spoke to Talya Meyers about her effort to get support to the heavily hit city.
Eighty percent of children with cancer in the United States and other developed nations survive, while many lower-income countries have mortality rates that exceed 80%. In order to increase access to cancer treatment for pediatric patients, Global HOPE, a Texas Children’s Hospital program, used a $50 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to build capacity throughout Africa, Direct Relief’s Noah Smith reported. Several enterprising doctors are part of the effort, including Dr. Nmazuo “Maz” Ozuah, whose program aims to treat 4,000 new pediatric cancer patients in Malawi during the next five years.
A family from Gaza searched for more than 10 years to find rare disease treatment, and found it in Israel as part of a charitable program to connect rare disease therapies to patients who otherwise couldn’t afford them. Mahmud, a 17-year-old living in Gaza, received treatment for Gaucher disease at Shaare Zedek Hospital in West Jerusalem, where Direct Relief’s Noah Smith was able to interview Mahmud, his family, and his health care providers.
Stories of the heroism of health workers were abundant this year, including from Saban Community Clinic in Los Angeles. A Direct Relief short documentary followed three providers – two nurses and a doctor – at Saban Community Clinic navigating providing the best care possible for their patients at enormous personal cost.
Entertainment mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Team Love Initiative organized a celebrity dance-a-thon on Easter Sunday, with proceeds going to Direct Relief. CÎROC and Diageo kicked off the Dance-A-Thon by donating the first $1 million. One major intended use of the funds was to help community health providers in cities that have seen high Covid-19 fatality rates among African Americans.
“Covid-19 has affected communities across the country, but especially communities of color,” Combs said. “The Team Love dance-a-thon gave us a chance to not only bring people together during these challenging times, but also raise funds to support our heroes working on the front lines. This partnership we’ve established with Direct Relief will allow us to continue to address the effects this terrible disease has on our most vulnerable communities.”
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” actor Jamal Trulove led an initiative to give out 15,000 bottles of homemade hand sanitizer, 2,500 masks, and other items associated with Covid-19 care to underserved communities in the San Francisco area and California prison system. “I come from a very poor, underserved community here in San Francisco… I grew up in a two-bedroom with eight people living in the house,” Trulove told Direct Relief’s Noah Smith. “We relied on other families around our community in order to survive.”
Jarianna Cruz, a 10-year-old girl in Puerto Rico, was one of many on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. The young girl spent as many as four days a week in a dialysis center, and to be eligible for a new kidney, her family needed $3,000 in an escrow account, a financial hurdle that keeps many in need from receiving an organ, Direct Relief’s Talya Meyers reported. With the help of a Direct Relief grant, Jarianna received a new kidney in July after a successful operation, and 24 other Puerto Rican children fighting end-stage renal disease received the financial assistance to ensure a successful transplant.
Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has recorded just 2,096 cases of Covid-19 among the population of nearly 5 million residents. Twenty-five people have died as a result of the pandemic, one of the lowest mortality rates recorded globally, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Direct Relief’s Noah Smith spoke with several sources, including Siouxsie Wiles, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Auckland, and a leading voice on how to combat the coronavirus in New Zealand.
The pandemic forced two groups working to provide medical care in the Amazon to reimagine how to serve remote communities in response to the pandemic. For the past 50 years, the Patrulla Aérea Civil Colombiana – the Colombian Civil Air Patrol – a fleet of volunteer pilots, has whisked doctors, nurses, and other health workers off to remote areas of Colombia, many of them only accessible by plane or boat, Direct Relief’s Talya Meyers reported. Advocacy and health care group Sinergias has been working for the past decade with similar communities – rural, in many cases Indigenous – to tackle ongoing issues like mental health and food security. The groups worked to distribute PPE and other medical goods, as well as promote culturally adapted information about Covid-19 in order to better support local efforts.
Dr. Nana Afoh-Manin – an emergency room physician and advocate for patients and health care workers alike – working with two colleagues, began offering Covid-19 testing at pop-up sites, first in Los Angeles, then in cities around the U.S., through a new task force called myCovidMD. It’s a way to get testing to people who might not otherwise get it, often because they lack access to a health care provider, or are uninsured or underinsured, Direct Relief’s Talya Meyers reported. “We have to actively engage to break down those barriers for people who are more disenfranchised,” Dr. Afoh-Manin said.
In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, Amy Yeung founded the Dził Asdzáán (Mountain Woman) Command Center, a group of women working together to source and distribute critical supplies like protective equipment, as well as food and shelter for those in need in the Navajo Nation. Yeung and many others worked to create a centralized effort to care for the community’s needs, prompted by the pandemic. “It’s up to us. We are the people who are here now and it’s up to every human being to be part of the solution,” she told Direct Relief’s Noah Smith.
New and expectant mothers face unique challenges when seeking treatment for an opioid use disorder. Staff at the Wright Center for Community Health in Scranton, Pennsylvania, recognized this, and started the Healthy Moms program, Direct Relief’s Amarica Rafanelli reported. More than 140 women have participated in the program, which provides Medication Assisted Therapy to women with opioid use disorders, as well as supportive housing and other programming to ensure moms and babies stay safe and connected.
Dr. Ginette Okoye, a prominent dermatologist, treats skin disorders in Black and brown patients, and she’s helping other frontline providers do the same. Dr. Okoye decided to specialize in treating skin of color, which was – and still is – under-represented in research, education, and practice, she told Direct Relief’s Talya Meyers. This year, with the support of the Maven Project and the Vaseline Healing Project, Dr. Okoye was one of several providers training other clinicians how to effectively treat skin of color.