Over 30 years ago, together with her husband Barry and ex-rider Randy Mamola, Andrea Coleman started a charity aimed at improving healthcare in rural communities in Africa by using motorcycles as transport. Health workers were provided with vehicles and locals were turned into mechanics to sustain a safe and efficient operation. Coleman, who used to be a racer herself, was devastated to see the state of the roads and the difficulty health workers faced in reaching remote villages, and started the Riders for Health non-profit organization to address this. These days, Coleman heads the nonprofit organization Two Wheels for Life, which supports Riders while raising the funds needed to carry on the mission in Africa.
With no MotoGP action in 2020 so far, and any races which might take place probably behind closed doors, the charity connected to and relying on the championship and its spectators is suffering greatly. “Normally at this time of the MotoGP racing season we would have raised around £40,000 by making sure fans have exclusive experiences provided by Two Wheels for Life thanks to Dorna generosity, but currently this year we raised £2000 pounds”, Coleman said, speaking from her home in the UK.
She pointed out that COVID-19 might have put the championship on hold, but other health problems continued unabated. “The programs need the money they normally need, as well as additional money,” she explained. “Viruses are not new to the African community, so many countries are suffering from a very severe burden of HIV, multidrug-resistant TB. They still have outbreaks of bubonic plague and leprosy, things that the developed world really haven't had to experience for a long time”. These diseases are still very much present in Liberia, The Gambia, Lesotho, Nigeria and Malawi, where the nonprofit is active with over 1400 vehicles and 700 staff members working in the five countries' various programs as administrators, drivers, riders, and on the technical side.
Impact on Africa
As much as dealing with the COVID-19 in the western world was, and still is, a challenge, Coleman is concerned about the implication it might have on the African continent, especially in the poor countries where Two Wheels for Life is active. “The Corona virus is a very different thing to them, it's a new virus, nobody has the information that they need, nobody has the protective clothing that they need. They don't know how to do the protective hand washing obviously, the additional hand washing that we all have to do, and total social distancing is very hard in very rural communities in Africa. Getting to them with information is really a need, as well as helping workers mobilize with motorcycles to get there and so this is a very difficult time for both health workers and the community. They have a regular burden of disease and now they have the new challenge that they have no information about. It's a very challenging time for the teams on the ground and the rural communities and their families”.
According to collected data, the number of Coronavirus cases in these countries are relatively low when compared with the West, East, and the Middle East, with 11 cases in Gambia, 141 in Liberia, 36 in Malawi, 1728 in Nigeria and no cases at all in Lesotho. Coleman is convinced the low numbers are due to lack of testing in the area “There are no reported cases in Lesotho at the moment but they are headed for the winter and it is very mountainous country, it's very cold there in the winter, lots of snow and ice and those community will be in their homes and not going out too much. Those are the conditions people are worried about when the spreading is more severe. The number of cases is around 5000 in South Africa, and despite the fact that there are no reported cases in Lesotho, it is unlikely that there are none there."
"This country is located inside South Africa and with coarse borders, the borders are closed but people can easily walk past, and can swim across rivers. Many citizens of Lesotho are employed in SA and will be going home, and what we are trying to do is to prepare for what we believe will be a severe outbreak within the coming months. We hope not, but we don't know what it is going to be like."
"Nevertheless the preparation for that is really taking the focus off other issues people are dealing with, and in the case of the multidrug-resistant TB, it's on rise in Lesotho and so is HIV, so it does take away the focus from them. So the struggle for them is to deal with that and this new challenge, and it's creating a lot of anxiety from the Ministry of Health-level right down to the individual person."
"In Gambia and Nigeria, the focus is to use the work that we do to get tests from test sites to laboratories, but as we know, testing is very expensive and the population in Nigeria is 200 million people so there are a lot of people to address. I am more worried about the African continent than anywhere else”, she admits “TB is a disease which is very prevalent in areas of poverty and a disease that attacks the respiratory system. There is a very high incidence of it in Africa, and of course once people also get the coronavirus which also affects the respiratory system, it really is lethal. We have to think about a continent where healthcare is fragile, health system are fragile and that we have a responsibility for it," Coleman explained.
Communicating is one of the big concerns in the prevention process “It's very difficult to get the information out, as it's not often that there are radios or any type of media in these distant communities. The only way is to have environmental health professionals and health workers ride out on motorcycles to these rural communities with posters and with leaflets with the information they can deliver. The communities are very distant and difficult to reach, so our job is that the health workers have the mobility to get out as far as they can to alert and guide these communities, and it has to be done without creating panic."
"Many villages don't have running water, they have to carry it a long way, so using it to wash hands all the time is really not feasible. It's hard to get soap, it's impossible to get hand sanitizer things like masks and rubber gloves are almost impossible to get , it really is a big concern and our focus has to be helping our health workers get out there to support the public in any way they can”.
It's not the first time Coleman and the nonprofit suffered from a shortage of funds. The recession in 2008 had a big impact on a lot of organizations worldwide. “This feels much worse, because we are completely dependent on MotoGP and the fans of the sport, and at the time of the serious recession in 2008, although fund raising was diminished a little, it didn't go away altogether as there were still races and our activities took place. This is much worse because we are accustomed to the fact that economies go up and down, and in some regards the economy is predictable. With this, nobody knows where the end is or what the world would look like once it begins to settle down. We don't know what the future and the future of our fundraising would be. It's almost nonexistent now, although Dorna are giving us a huge amount of support. But it's hard to tell how secure the organization can be”.
Coleman is aware that the people who usually donate are not just not able to buy tickets to the paddock, or rides on the Energica MotoE bike at the moment, and donate to help Africa. They are in trouble themselves. “I look at that in two different ways. I think that because people have now experienced the threat of the virus and are getting used to it, I think that it has alerted people of how it feels for the communities we are trying to assist. I think there's a lot of real concern for the people in Africa, because all of a sudden we are all experiencing that ourselves, and we all know that Africa is so vulnerable and that the health system is so fragile."
"So on one hand it draws more concern and empathy from the rest of the world, but on the other side, the focus on fundraising is going really to producing a vaccine and to the health system in developed countries. I think it's done two things: long term it will help people to have more empathy for what it's like to live with a disease that is so rampant,” she added.
Even though until now Two Wheels for Life only raised about 5% of its projected amount for May, the organization is still managing to keep the work at normal capacity, although with great concern. “We are definitely not cutting anything, but it is definitely a struggle to do the regular work of transporting women in labor to hospital, making sure children are still being immunized, patients on treatment are still confined with their treatment, and then in addition to get people informed about COVID-19 and how they can protect themselves and their families. It's not about cutting anything, just stretching the maximum to keep the normal service running and to address these issues. In the programs we collaborate with other charities, as our mobility is there to support health delivery. So we partner with all the organizations whose cause is to deliver healthcare to enable them to do their job”.
Like everyone else today, the organization and its team have to find new ways to raise the funds needed, and they are still learning though the current situation. “There are social media activities, like Instagram takeovers, private Zoom drink-alongs, and raising awareness during the eSport MotoGP virtual race,” Coleman explains. The platforms MotoGP are airing the races on are free, so they are asking fans to donate to Two Wheels for Life rather than paying to watch the race. The broadcast will include short stories of the work we support, and direct the viewers to our website in hope that people will donate, even if small amounts. It's a difficult question to know what we can expect, as we have not done this kind of work before, I would say we will be pleased with whatever we raise. We would hope for £10,000 or £20,000, but everything is going to help, and we also want people to have fun."
"What we have always done with MotoGP is enable people to have access to things the normally fans don't. This weekend one of the things that was offered was a virtual sundown with Suzi Perry together with riders like Danilo Petrucci and Franco Morbidelli. We are looking for all sorts of new ways, but everybody's learning how to live their lives in a virtual way, and we are all doing so socially, but we also must learn how to earn money and to communicate the challenges the programs in Africa have. We are hoping people can once again enjoy, have fun while supporting Two Wheels for Life, even if that's in a new way.”
One of Two Wheels for Life's main events is the Day of Champions, held a day before the British MotoGP round takes place. The Day of Champions sees live interviews and auctions raising amounts of over £100,000 each year. With the Silverstone race still in doubt, and the possibility of no public being allowed, the event may have to be scrapped, which means a huge loss of income. “We have been talking in the last few days on how to achieve a virtual Day of Champions, and I must say that Dorna and the MotoGP paddock have been incredibly supportive. At the time many of the teams are scattered around the world, it's hard for them to get the memorabilia and activities we normally auction. We are working very hard with them to see what we can put on, it's got to be fun and worth all the work of the teams and riders who take part in it”.
Pride in achievements
Even though it's hard these days, Coleman is thankful for all the effort and all they achieved in the last three decades. “At this time when fans are missing our wonderful sport, I think it's important to recognize that the people who run it, the teams, the riders, the people who participate in it and the fans really are extraordinary people. The work that we began 30 years ago with Riders for Health, like allowing health workers to reach six time as many patients, allowing them to have more time with the community, cutting mortality numbers at birth, blood tests, employing a large number of people in Africa, making sure hundreds of thousands, millions of people are getting health care using two wheels, that would have never been done without the motorcycling community and the MotoGP community in particular. I really want to thank everybody in whatever way I can to say just how grateful we are for the support we received. We know it changed millions of lives, and that's down to MotoGP and the whole family”.
“We know it's hard for everybody at the moment,” Coleman emphasizes “We don't expect people to commit to a huge amount of money and whatever it is, would help people, but we do know life's a struggle for everyone at the moment, and we appreciate anything they could do. We need to care of the environment and we need to take care of the whole world, also when we are having a difficult time at home. One health worker on a well-maintained motorcycle one can go predictably and reliably, day in and day out, to these rural communities to make sure they can provide pre- and post-labor care, making sure they are looking after pregnant women and newborn babies, making sure children are immunized, making sure people are taking their meds for serious illnesses. Protecting people, as well as health education about nutrition and health care."
"All of this is vital for people who, communities who, before the work that we do, did not even know they had a health worker, let alone see them on a regular basis. So that the work we support. This is a very interconnected world. If it weren't, the corona virus would not have been a worldwide problem. But we are connected, and if Africa isn't taken care of and we don't think about it, it could be completely devastating, not only for Africa but for the rest of us, and we have to think in a connected and global way. Everyone is confused, and we just have to take one day at a time and try all we can to look out for ourselves, our family, our neighbors, but also our much wider community, global community. So it turns out we are all responsible to one another”.
How to help:
MotoMatters.com has supported Two Wheels for Life, and its associated organization Riders for Health, for nearly two decades. You can help too, by going to https://www.twowheelsforlife.org/ and making a donation.
Photos courtesy of Two Wheels for Life.