15 April 2020

With any epidemic, where death is not seen as an immediate threat, it’s easy for people to think ‘this isn’t going to happen to me’ – that is the worry of Marcus McGilvary, founder of streetfootballworld network member organisation Africaid – Whizzkids United.


In 2002 Marcus, a HIV Nurse specialist, founded the organisation in response to the burgeoning HIV and AIDS epidemic in Ghana, and has since branched out to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. For the past two weeks, all regular activities have been suspended and efforts have turned towards fighting the spread of coronavirus in both locations.


“From experience,” said Marcus, “we know how difficult it is to get people to act on preventative measures.” During the AIDS epidemic, the ability for people to recognise the severity of the outbreak and translate precautionary advice into action, was not hindered by a cavalier attitude, but rather by a country’s inadequacy to cope. “Like then,” he said, “I think the penny drops when cases skyrocket and people suddenly think, wow, this is real.”


“Ghana has a very fragile health system at the best of times. So something like this would just be overwhelming.” With the situation in South Africa at a more advanced stage, showing higher amounts of cases and a nationwide 21-day lockdown already imposed, Marcus believes: “it’s not a matter of if, but when, Tamale goes into lockdown.”

As of 1st April, Ghana reported a total number of 204 confirmed cases, with deaths standing at five. On 29th March, ten of the 11 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Tamale where WhizzKids is based. Yet, government-imposed restrictions have only been issued in Accra and Kumasi.


“For us, a lockdown would be an ideal situation,” Marcus said, “people are staying home if they can but most have to keep going. People have to go out. They have to make money to eat.”


“People are worried here. You see a lot of them wearing the masks you’d usually only see during Harmattan, which is our dusty season.” Therein lies the fundamental threat of the virus, with the resources simply not available to the Ghanaians living hand to mouth, the possibility of abandoning their jobs is not an option. Knowing that such virus’ don’t discriminate, for Marcus school closures signalled a cue to action. “We closed all services, apart from our clinic in South Africa as normal,” he said, detailing the chain of events. “That can’t and won’t shut down. Young people need access to their treatment, otherwise they’ll become immunosuppressed.”


In Ghana, however, the focus immediately switched to preventative measures: promoting social distancing and hand washing. Soon enough the WhizzKids facility became a workshop producing Veronica buckets – a sanitation set-up with a bucket, a tap fixed at the bottom, and held above a bowl. The organisation is used to encouraging proper hand washing in areas without running water, helping save lives by reducing the spread of bacteria and viruses but are now sold out and near impossible to get hold of in the wake of the crisis that continues to unfold. Instead, Marcus and his team bought their own buckets and taps, making a successful prototype using the innertube of a motorcycle tyre as a seal. “We’ve got ten outside as we speak,” he said, “and we’ve got a welder working on the steel frames.”  The plan is to distribute them at public toilets, the market, and outside areas within the community so people can wash their hands. Each bucket will be adorned with the words: ‘If we work as a team, we can beat COVID-19’.


Initially, the organisation’s attempts to ramp up prevention included teaming up with the World Football Summit to create and distribute health promotion posters. Though without people experiencing any visible untoward illness, impact was limited. “You can reinforce cleanliness but it only works if you actually make the tools available,” Marcus said. WhizzKids staff have also resumed the undertaking of a football for good programme creation – producing eco-friendly homemade washing liquid, disinfectant and bleach from their own coconut oil and glycerine. Birthed from the newly formed entrepreneurial module of the female empowerment workshops, the products from in-house brand ‘Simply Clean’ will be put to good use and made available to the communities most in need. As of next week, they’ll turn their hand to making masks.


Yet with foresight from his colleagues South Africa, Marcus is gearing up for the worst, which he predicts is still to come. He’s currently speeding up the now untimely renovation of the Ghanaian branch’s small, on-site clinic, all thanks to the generosity of the workforce, who he’s managed to convince of the gravity of completing the task. “The plan is to use our compound and offer it as a place of isolation for the most vulnerable,” he explained. “Whether it’s the elderly, or pregnant women, with our access to fresh running water they wouldn’t have to use the local well, as most of us have to, and they’d be a lot safer. We want to give ourselves a chance to be ready.”


Amid the array of noise surrounding the reporting on the crisis, reliable information, he has felt, has been muted. As a country, Ghana is familiar with high rates of death from malaria, cholera, and typhoid. There are legitimate concerns about how the spread will be monitored. In South Africa, the staff were among those called by the Department of Health to assist the public health response to the crisis. They are part of a select few in South African society warranted to be in public spaces, as they carry out COVID-19 testing on the public.


Despite stories emerging of having to source their own N95 respiratory masks, a lack of gloves, and testing kits running out, the WhizzKids staff were ready and willing to offer their services. And in the cruellest twist of fate, the merciless nature of the outbreak has forced Marcus’ hand in making cutbacks within organisation. Already, he’s had to lay-off four members of staff as tries to ensure the organisation’s long-term survival. “We’re going to have to take pay cuts, so that we can ride this out,” he said. “I don't want to be four months down the road, and say to my staff, you've worked tirelessly throughout this and now I’m sending you home with nothing.” The risk of survival is a real one. And so too is the hard work achieved over the last three years at risk of being reversed.


Though WhizzKids will try to continue HIV and tuberculosis testing, as well as its distribution of condoms. Without young people receiving the right tools and information Marcus expects sexual exposure to HIV will be on the rise as further collateral damage. “It’s a real shame because our data shows that we’ve helped take an area with one of the highest infection rates in the country in Edendale [Pietermaritzburg] to become one of the lowest,” he said. His thoughts are with all the young people not currently able to access regular WhizzKids services across both countries. “These are vulnerable children, who now can’t come in and receive our daily feeding scheme, or can’t pick up their food parcels that we give out each month,” he said.


“There are homes that can’t provide proper amounts of food or adequate home education. It’s not like in the UK; people haven’t got internet access even if schooling were to go online.” Marcus anticipates at least another six months before team-based football activities and their full range of programmes will return as normal. He is quick to recognise his struggles are ones shared in these trying times. Solidarity, he knows, is vital. A similar sense of collective resolve from the international community, as shown by his own team, is needed if all stakeholders are to come out the other end intact. “Just because we’re not experiencing the same response at the same time, we can’t afford to approach this by only looking at our own countries. “Getting through this crisis is dependent on working together. All the good work done elsewhere could be undone again if everyone is not on board.”

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