Engaging local leaders to keep their communities safe from COVID-19

By supporting leaders to lead and advocate the safety measures.

A man making a power point presentation
UNICEF Bhutan/2021/SPelden
21 June 2021

Tsenkhar, Lhuentse: “How many districts in Bhutan have not reported COVID-19 cases?” asks the senior health assistant Kezangla.

Twelve, says one from the corner of the community hall as others count the districts on their fingertips. 13? 14? Eleven adds a woman from another end of the room.

Kezangla then shows the map of Bhutan highlighting the districts that have not reported COVID-19 cases. “There are seven districts today that have not reported COVID-19 cases,” he says.

A group of people in a meeting hall
UNICEF Bhutan/2021/SPelden
Participants comprising of local leaders attend a community engagement session on COVID-19 safety measures and the second round of vaccination.

Their district, Lhuentse, in far east Bhutan is among the seven from the 20 that have not yet reported a COVID-19 case. On June 24, the number dropped to six after Pemagatshel district in south east Bhutan reported two COVID-19 positive cases.

To ensure Lhuentse remains safe, around 16 community leaders comprising representatives from the villages, the municipality, and the monastic body gathered recently at the community hall to attend a sensitization session on their roles in keeping their communities safe from COVID-19. The community leaders were also informed on the need to take the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and made aware of the shadow issues that occur during a pandemic.

Kezangla shared that some of the reasons that could lead to less people turning up for the second round of COVID-19 vaccination are fear of side effects that some reported after the first dose, false news, poor knowledge on benefits of second dose and the second round coinciding with the paddy plantation time.

He assured the leaders, however, that with proper planning and sensitization, residents would turn up for the second dose. As of June 9, the district recorded 97.5 per cent vaccination coverage. “We will have 45 health workers stationed at 66 vaccination posts for the second round,” he said, adding that schools and gewog (community) centers were the preferred vaccination sites for the residents.”

With support from UNICEF, health officials in 14 districts are engaging communities on reinforcing COVID-19 safety protocols and sensitizing communities on the importance of taking the second dose of the vaccine and addressing COVID triggered issues.

A health assistant with a UNICEF health worker's bag
UNICEF Bhutan/2021/SPelden
Health Assistant Dago Wangmo carries the health worker's bag during her visits to the communities in Tangmachu, Lhuentse.

Health Assistant at Tangmchu Basic Health Unit (BHU), Dago Wangmo said they have been clearing misinformation some people have after seeing a fake social media post on the second dose being more painful and even fatal. “We tell them that such information is not true, that they must verify information with health officials and that they must take the second dose to be more protected,” she said.

Besides advocating on COVID-19 safety protocols through online group chats and home visits, Dago Wangmo said they also sensitize at the healthcare centres. The TV sets distributed to all health centres through UNICEF support are used to screen key public health messages.

Supporting the efforts of the health sector is the monastic body. Lhuentse’s Lam Neten (head monk), Ngawang Tshithup, said it requires a collective effort to keep the people safe. “People listen and adhere to the safety measures when religious leaders advise as it is taken as a form of teaching,” he said.

A monk
UNICEF Bhutan/2021/SPelden
Lhuentse district’s Lam Neten (head monk), Ngawang Tshithup. The monastic community has been working together with the district administration to support all COVID-19 advocacy efforts.

Deputy Chief Program Officer with the Health Promotion Division at the Ministry of Health, Sonam Wangchuk said the health sector benefits when more leaders and stakeholders join their advocacy efforts. “When the health sector benefits from their advocacy, the people benefit,” he said. “That is why we must work together to keep people safe from COVID-19 and its impacts.”

One of the local leaders, Mangmi Kinzang Selden, said that sensitization programmes in the communities are important for them to stay updated on the situation. “People in the communities are aware of and practice the safety measures,” she said.

As part of Bhutan’s COVID-19 response, UNICEF is supporting the Health Promotion Division to regularly update and implement their COVID-19 Risk Communication and Community Engagement action plan to promote COVID-appropriate behaviours and in raising awareness on seeking support on shadow issues.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks said the COVID-19 pandemic is more than a health crisis and one that has fueled misinformation and aggravated socio-economic problems in the communities.

“With the pandemic still raging in the region and as we continue to see new cases in the country, people’s behaviours and their willingness to follow the safety measures remain the most powerful tool to stop the spread of the virus,” he said. “The risk communication and community engagement activities that UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Health with, is critical and catalytical in breaking the chains of transmission and mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.”

A group of people in a meeting hall
UNICEF Bhutan/2021/SPelden
UNICEF Bhutan's C4D Specialist Tobgye flags some of the COVID-19 shadow issues that local government leaders in Lhuentse district could help address in the communities.