Since 1998, Friendship Bridge has stared down multiple crises while standing steadfast alongside the women we serve in Guatemala. We persevered through those challenges and emerged more resilient on the other side. Now is no exception, even as the virus responsible for COVID-19 continues to spread worldwide, presenting unknown risks to all.
Because this crisis will be especially dire for our organization and our clients, we are more committed than ever to being here for them and their families now and, most importantly, after the crisis. The health and safety of our community, staff, and women in Guatemala are at the core of our decision making. In an effort to ensure the safety of all our stakeholders, we are being proactive, compassionate and thoughtful in our response to COVID-19.
Below is an update on the situation in Guatemala and a list of just some of the measures Friendship Bridge has implemented thus far, rooted in our core values.
When this was written on March 24, 2020, there were 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala and testing for the virus has been extremely limited. Testing is only available in the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, and health experts believe the number of cases is much higher and will only continue to climb as testing becomes more available.
Honduras and Guatemala are the countries most susceptible to a large-scale outbreak due to the poor quality of their health systems. The Guatemalan government understands this and they are implementing measures like closing borders, canceling all Semana Santa activities, and closing restaurants and schools until further notice.
Guatemalan economists believe that the country is already losing nearly $128 million every day to lost productivity. Also, remittances from the U.S. (which represent nearly 13% of Guatemala’s GDP) are a vital source of income to families across the country. Although they have remained steady up until now, economists predict they will soon plummet as the economic calamity becomes widespread and intractable in the U.S., which will disproportionately affect migrant laborers.
Communication, Education, and Support
Mainly through phone calls and What’s App messaging, our staff has been communicating with clients to disseminate information about the Coronavirus, often hearing about it from us first. The early calls were focused on how to stay safe with proper hygiene and social distancing, information on common symptoms, and who to call if someone is sick.
Loan Restructuring + Grace Periods
The containment orders have a direct and negative impact on our clients’ ability to earn income. In response to growing concerns of our clients, Friendship Bridge is offering clients the option to restructure their loans to include a one-month grace period.
We also are offering prepayments with no penalties and reduced interest and are prepared to offer a two-month grace period if needed. Clients should not have to choose between making their loan payments and buying food or necessary medical supplies.
We have postponed our Building Bridges Gala from May 1 to Oct. 8 knowing that large gatherings are not considered to be safe now and in the coming months.
We have also suspended all business travel between the U.S. and Guatemala and suspended all Trust Bank meetings, technical training, agriculture programs, health services, and nonformal education sessions. Some branch offices remain open for support, but with reduced hours and managed by only essential staff.
Working Remotely + #TogetherAtHome
Most of our employees in the U.S. and Guatemala, which is approximately 175 people, are now working from home where they remain committed to getting us through this crisis while still supporting our clients. While our most critical systems are cloud-based, access to the necessary information is available with an internet connection. Access to the internet can be a challenge for many employees in rural Guatemala, but most have smart phones and can access the internet that way. It is complicated!
Honored Agreements + Stopped Spending
Even though the economic climate in Guatemala is highly uncertain and risky, we are honoring our agreements for March 2020 and will disperse new loans to clients that were previously approved. And we will continue to offer new loans where longer-term clients still have viable businesses.
We have canceled all organizational spending and purchasing of anything not deemed essential.
Open + Accurate Information
Misinformation abounds in Guatemala regarding COVID-19 and we are doing our best to counter false messaging with accurate medical guidelines to keep our clients and staff informed and safe. We continue to be transparent with our clients about their loan status and with our supporters about the steps we are taking to respond as an organization. We are constantly reviewing various financial scenarios as we make some very difficult decisions about a future no one knows for sure. These are indeed difficult and sad times for Friendship Bridge and our clients.
You have always stood by our clients and now we need you here for her more than ever. Our clients continue to be at the forefront of our decisions. Our response to our clients’ needs through restructuring of loans and deferment of payments will not be possible without your ongoing support.
We ask for your continued support through a gift today to allow Friendship Bridge to continue creating opportunities that empower Guatemalan women to build a better life.
Please contact us by email if you have any questions and please take good care of yourselves.