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.
How is COVID-19 is affecting Friendship Bridge’s business operations?
Everything we do in the field for vulnerable women in Guatemala was put to an abrupt halt in March 2020. We have 73 facilitators, with an average of 330 clients each, who typically travel to the most rural parts of the country on a daily basis to facilitate the group Trust Bank meetings, including nonformal education programs and loan repayments. With the potential for the virus responsible for COVID-19 to spread, the government has closed all schools, offices, non-essential businesses, public transportation, and significantly reduced market hours where many of our clients do their business and buy their food.
The containment orders have a direct and negative impact on our clients’ ability to earn income and pay their loans back to Friendship Bridge and in the meantime, all our in-person loan collection meetings and education programs have stopped. In time, this situation will have a significant and detrimental effect on our operations, our revenue, and ultimately our ability to continually meet the needs of the women we serve.
How is this affecting women in Guatemala?
We rallied together to make phone calls to our clients in multiple indigenous languages the week of March 16, 2020, to ask clients what they were experiencing, what we could do to support them, and how much they, and people in their community, knew about the Coronavirus. During these calls, staff also informed women about the virus itself and briefed them on ways to stay safe with frequent hand washing and social distancing practices.
Overwhelmingly, clients expressed gratitude to Friendship Bridge for caring about them and their families during this time. Some clients were hearing accurate information from us first and said that others were not taking it seriously. Most clients were concerned about not being able to work and wanted to prioritize responsible, timely payments on their loans to Friendship Bridge.
Friendship Bridge immediately started offering clients the option to restructure their loans to include grace periods, prepayments with no penalties, and reduced interest. We are also using technology in new and inventive ways to continue providing invaluable services to our clients during this time.
- Telehealth Services: we are calling our clients in Guatemala to provide quality health services by phone to discuss symptoms, provide healthcare education, and direct women on treatments as needed. When reliable and trustworthy information is scarce in Guatemala, our clients will have access to accurate healthcare information.
- Intranet: We launched our new INTRANET communications tool to allow staff to collaborate more effectively while staying safe by working from home. We are also using this time strategically to take advantage of remote learning opportunities during restrictive shelter-in-place orders. With the use of an online learning platform, staff will be trained on customer service, emotional intelligence, and responsible loan collections practices from the safety of their homes.
- Phone Calls: Although Guatemala is a poor country, many clients own a cellphone. Our calls in mid-March gave us real, on-the-ground information regarding the level of knowledge, clients have about the situation and their concerns. Facilitators and Loan Officers continue to call clients on the phone to address their concerns, show care, and provide comfort during a time of uncertainty. Our calls are helping prepare clients to confront the situation, demonstrate our commitment to them, and get feedback on what might be the best solutions or interventions in response to the crisis.
How You Can Help:
Because this crisis will be especially dire for our organization and our clients, we are now more committed than ever to being here for them and their families. Friendship Bridge works with the poorest of the poor. We have a proven record of helping women and their families climb out of poverty and the need for microcredit will be greater than ever once this pandemic is behind us. To weather this storm, Friendship Bridge needs your help now.