Community-led response to COVID-19 in Colombia

Published: 24 May 2021

The University of Glasgow partnered with the Diocese of Quibdó and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) to understand the effect of the COVID-19 global pandemic in Chocó and to develop an effective collective response.

Group photo of UofG, SCIAF and Quibdo Diocese staff members

The University of Glasgow partnered with the Diocese of Quibdó and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) to understand the effect of the COVID-19 global pandemic in Chocó and to develop an effective collective response. Chocó is the poorest and most ethnically diverse region of Colombia. The project’s vital public health measures and psychosocial support reached approximately 5,000 people in total.

This action research project enhanced the capacity of Diocese of Quibdó, a central member of the departmental Emergency Response Committee in Colombia, to develop a collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that recognised, respected and learned from the common and differentiated challenges faced by various ethnic communities.

Mark Camburn, Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund’s Programme Officer for Latin America, said: 'It’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact this project had on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and supporting vulnerable communities through lockdown. The funding allowed us to further collaborate at a time when strong international partnerships are needed most. By combining the University of Glasgow and SCIAF’s knowledge and experience with local expertise in the Diocese of Quibdó, we were able to take significant steps towards reducing the spread of coronavirus in communities, so ultimately, this funding saved lives.”

Understanding communities

This project, led by Professor Mo Hume, employed research methodology which ensured that the experiences and voices of local ethnic communities were heard and at the forefront of decision-making.

The research team worked together to understand and address the challenges that face local communities where the pre-existent humanitarian crisis has deepened as a direct result of COVID-19. In order to address the effects of COVID-19 in communities such as Chocó, collaborators had to develop capacity that is informed by and built on existing collective cultural practices.

Professor Hume said: “This is a really challenging time for communities in Chocó where a pre-existent humanitarian crisis has become much more complex in the context of a pandemic. Existing research on COVID and other pandemics shows that ethnic minority communities experience increased inequalities that are caused by and exacerbate existing discrimination. This is critical for those who live in contexts like Chocó where limited formal health systems and ongoing armed conflict create very particular risks for Indigenous and Afro Colombian territories. At the same time, we have much to learn from their collective responses to crises.”

Workshops and communication

As with most inclusive research partnerships, workshops and communication are key to enabling successful outcomes and long-term impact. The Diocese worked with community leaders to identify families at particularly high risk to COVID-19 and the effects of lockdown. Professor Hume and colleagues developed workshops about capacity to respond to COVID-19 using culturally inclusive training and practice.

Adopting a work package approach, the team focused on:

  • providing pyscho-social support for communities affected by the crisis.
  • tailoring public health prevention and containment measures.
  • generating best-practice lessons for future crisis planning in Chocó and other fragile contexts.

The team partnered with local communications and media teams to disseminate messages to local communities that include key public health measures and background to the pandemic, as well as fostering solidarity and drawing links with the wider humanitarian crisis in Chocó.

Important to the communications was a grounding in collective cultural and historic struggles, foregrounding the importance of a holistic approach to self-care which recognise the inextricable connections between humans and the natural environment they inhabit. The team produced four videos, including the composition of a song, to help communicate these messages, which they disseminated widely among social media.

Tailored approach to supporting communities

A key issue facing communities is the impact of COVID-19 on mourning rituals, which are collective processes in Chocó where the community comes together to celebrate and mourn their dead. These collective mourning practices are prevented due to public health guidelines. The team developed six modules on grief and mourning to support affected families. These modules underpinned 18 virtual workshops with around 100 participants. These modules now form an important resource for communities dealing with a key dimension of the mental health effects of the pandemic.

Public health prevention and containment measures tailored to the specific challenges faced by communities in Chocó was a priority. In remote areas with little access to health infrastructure, traditional medicines are often the only option for marginalised communities. Training delivered by community partners supported communities to draw on local ancestral knowledge to mitigate the effects of the pandemic (including the production of a guide to using traditional medicines to treat COVID-19 symptoms). The team utilised these training sessions to address the pressing needs of the community. Humanitarian packs containing personal hygiene products, personal protective equipment and food were delivered to over 1,050 at-risk families.

Utilising their knowledge of the community the Diocese developed useful tools for data collection and grassroots responses. This approach included 61 online surveys, 10 interviews with key stakeholders and three focus groups (24 participants). A final report draws a range of lessons that are already informing the Diocese’s response to the next phase of the pandemic. The report outlines the intersecting challenges of Chocó’s pre-existing humanitarian crisis and COVID-19, including increased activity from armed groups during lockdown and confinement of communities. It also recognises the importance of the Diocese’s unique role as a trusted and embedded local actor in communicating difficult public health messages and responding to the needs of communities. 

Key facts

  • Collaboration with international partners designed to provide tailored and effective interventions which were co-created with the community.
  • The project reached approx. 5,000 people.
  • Humanitarian packs were delivered to 1,050 at-risk families.
  • The team supported the development of a guide to using traditional medicines to treat symptoms of COVID-19. Hugely valuable to remote communities unable to access healthcare systems.
  • ‘Lessons learned’ report published to assist in the next phase of the pandemic.

First published: 24 May 2021