Fighting avoidable blindness in a global pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has made preventing and treating avoidable blindness both harder and more urgent. Eye care services around the world have either been suspended or repurposed to fight COVID-19, opportunities for in-person training have been greatly reduced, and sources of income have been disrupted. Where we work, in countries where health systems were already under strain, the effects have been devastating. So, in a year like no other, we’ve leant heavily on our experience of innovation and technology to meet the rising demand for eye care in a newly remote world.

An mother and child during our mass administration of antibiotics to prevent trachoma in Ethiopia.
A mother and child during our mass administration of antibiotics to prevent trachoma in Ethiopia.

COVID-19 has created particular challenges for our work. Typically, eye care requires eye health workers and patients to be in close proximity – so social distancing and infection control measures have made it costly and complicated to carry out eye screenings, treatments and surgeries. Our mass antibiotic distribution programmes routinely require people to congregate in large gatherings, which has been impossible. And, even after restrictions have been lifted, many people have avoided healthcare settings for fear of becoming infected. Finding solutions to these problems has demanded ingenuity, experience and resolve.

An eye care worker preparing antibiotics in Ethiopia.
An eye care worker preparing antibiotics in Ethiopia.
Screening in Bangladesh during the pandemic.
Screening in Bangladesh during the pandemic.
An Ethiopian woman being treated by an eye care worker.
An Ethiopian woman being treated by an eye care worker.
House-to-house drug administration in Ethiopia during the pandemic.
House-to-house drug administration in Ethiopia during the pandemic.
Charles Chikwanda an Orbis-trained ophthalmic clinical officer from Zambia.
Charles Chikwanda an Orbis-trained ophthalmic clinical officer from Zambia.
An eye testing session in Zambia.
An eye testing session in Zambia.

Thanks to funds provided by our generous supporters, including statutory and institutional donors, we’ve been able to do just that. We adapted eye health settings in line with guidance on social distancing, we gave staff the personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitisers they needed, and we developed new, COVID-secure ways to look after people's eye health.

Our eye care workers responded with determination and imagination. Overcoming fears for their own safety and the relentless demands of PPE and constant sanitising, they restarted work tackling major backlogs and undertaking laborious house-to-house visits to see people no longer able to gather in groups. Meanwhile, the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital was reimagined as the virtual Flying Eye Hospital, providing remote training webinars via Cybersight.

2020 has been a challenging year beyond any of our expectations, not least because of all the people whose eye conditions we simply couldn't treat due to pandemic restrictions. But, thanks to our experience in infection control and technology, and the extraordinary efforts of our staff, volunteers and donors, we've been able to continue saving sight and transforming lives.