"My view of life changed when I got COVID-19"

Agnes Barongo, Communication for Development Specialist in Uganda, realized firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on Women's lives

22 March 2021

On March 8, it's International Women's Day. This year’s theme is "Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world", celebrating the tremendous efforts by women around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. At UNICEF, we want to celebrate the achievements of women in leadership positions, and also those who display leadership qualities.

Throughout the whole month of March 2021, the Women's Month, we publish the stories of only a few of the many women who make a difference in UNICEF every day. Today, we host the interview of Agnes Barongo, our Communications for Development (C4D) Specialist in UNICEF Uganda

Portrait photo of Agnes
Ijuka Agnes Barongo

My life view changed just before Christmas when I got COVID-19. I was utterly shocked and kept asking how I could fail at observing the prevention protocols. Now I truly understand the psychological and physical meaning of living with COVID19. Not everyone is fortunate to have ready access to social services, so I am fortunate. But the experience provided me with further compassion and determination to keep doing the best to ensure less fortunate citizens get access to the right information and services that can save their lives

Agnes Barongo

Communications for Development (C4D) Specialist, Uganda

Who are you and what is your role at UNICEF?

I hail from Hoima District, located in mid-western Uganda. It is one of 135 districts in the Republic of Uganda that has a total population of 45.7 million people. Its capital, Hoima City, has just been converted into a city as part of the development agenda to upgrade Municipal Town Councils around the nation. I work as a Communication for Development Specialist based in Kampala City, the capital of the Republic of Uganda. My main responsibilities centre on ensuring that bottlenecks to the adoption of positive behaviourial and societal practices are addressed at different levels in our society from the household, to the community, to the district and national levels. I work with the Education and Child Protection teams in UNICEF, Government and Civil Society Organizations to have these addressed in the first and second decades of a child’s life. Presently, I work in 30 focus districts and with eight government line ministries to ensure that both at the community and national levels, there are systems running in place to support vulnerable children to have access to education and child protection social services.

How did COVID-19 impact your life, both on professional as well as on personal level?

On a professional level COVID-19 provided me with a revisit to emergency work that I had already been supporting as the alternative focal point in the Communication for Development Unit, under the Communications and Partnerships Section in UNICEF Uganda Country Office. I had already been part of the emergency interventions supporting the Ministry of Health under the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre and National Task Force during the 2017 Marburg outbreak in Eastern Uganda and the 2018 – 2019 Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Western Uganda. Health emergencies being a cross-sectoral programme I had already experienced what it means to ensure that the all the education and child protection stakeholders convene to discuss and take action on addressing the virulent outbreaks. I also was able to understand in these two outbreaks the vital importance of being vigilant and being the example to demonstrating how to stick to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) when it came to personal and team safety measures. When COVID-19 broke out, I was on leave, however, my prior experience with emergencies and virulent outbreaks made me more conscious and empathetic to the communities around me. Not everyone responds to directives set out by government or district officials. My job continues to provide me with perspectives on how there needs to be a re-invention each time to see how best to encourage people to keep adhering to positive social and behaviourial practices that would keep them safe from obtaining any deadly virus of epidemic proportions, infecting people and dying a death that could be prevented. I found myself greeting strangers, advising them on the protocols for protecting themselves from COVID-19. I also did get into situations where I would inquire from a service delivery point why there was no sanitizer, washing point or temperature gun present. Of course, in these circumstances, it was imperative to have a demonstrative level of understanding, humility but at the same time determination in getting the safety protocols message across to the people in the communities I interacted in. At a personal level, the COVID-19 situation made me learn to understand my family better. During lockdown, there were various moments of epiphany, living in a household with extended family members. Inadvertently, the proximity helped me to understand and become more empathetic to the individual challenges we as humans face daily. I am less judgmental now when it comes to reviewing cases of violence because I realized that our upbringing colluding with our immediate environment and personal difficulties in attaining a sustainable living, can bring out the worst behaviourial traits. I try not to make excuses but at least I have a more varied approach to making inquiries into trying to understand what drives each human being to perform an act of violence against family or strangers.

My life view changed just before Christmas when I got COVID-19. I was utterly shocked and kept asking how I could fail at observing the prevention protocols. However, it also made me ensure that I paid acute attention to treatment. I reported daily to the UN doctor in charge and took medication and monitored my vitals. When I went for the exit COVID-19 test, I was extremely nervous and did not sleep the night before. The following day when I got my results, there was an explosion of relief. Now I truly understand the psychological and physical meaning of living with COVID19. I am a better person when it comes to vigilance in observing prevention protocols and to the occasional dismay of my family, I keep repeating the SOPs because I understand firsthand how the pandemic has impacted on me.

Agnes Barongo at an event with adolescents
Agnes Barongo
Agnes Barongo at an adolescents event in Uganda

Not everyone is fortunate to have readily access to social services, so I am fortunate. But it provides me with further compassion and determination to keep doing the best to ensure less fortunate citizens get access to the right information and services that can save their lives.

Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally impacted women, mothers and girls' lives, and how?

To a great extent everyone was impacted negatively by this COVID-19 pandemic. Until adequate research is done on a nationwide survey in Uganda, it would be presumptuous to say that women, mothers and girls lives were disproportionally impacted without actual statistics per household, village, parish, sub-county and district. But based on Uganda Broadcast and Print Media articles, Child Helpline reports and research with a focus on two publications. The Violence Against Children Survey - Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development 2018 and the Adolescent Vulnerability Index - Government of Uganda and Population Council 2013, yes women, mothers and girls have suffered the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Girls have dropped out of school now that education was haltered for 12 months since March last year. If a girl child is in a household where the decision maker, felt there was need for her to get married based on her biological maturity, then she was unlawfully sent to cohabit with a man. In return, gifts in form of bride price exchange hands and this union is based on transactional parameters. A number of Mothers spoken to have occasionally stated that their daughters would receive health and protection from the man they have been forced into a union with. For these particular women, their mindset makes them believe that a traditional union with a man is the solution to security and protection. These women unfortunately do not see value in the girl child staying at home, working with her parents to continue learning as a way of protecting her from any harmful traditional practice of child marriage, teenage pregnancy while waiting for schools to reopen. In this dichotomy of the girl child facing violence and their Mothers, Aunties, Grandmothers witnessing this rights abuse, are their voices not being heard or respected by the decision maker in the household who is the perpetuator. There have been reports of an escalation of violence at homes, domestic, sexual and psychological. As candidate and sub-candidate classes have recently resumed schooling, School teachers have already obtained reports from students who are suffering from the aftermath of these various forms of violence they experienced or witness as it was unleashed on the female adults in their families and communities. A recommendation made by the Gender Unit, Ministry of Education and Sports stipulates there is an urgent requirement for psyscho-social support to be provided to students on return to school. In our nation where social services in the field of pyscho-social support is still gaining traction, more would need to be done to strengthen the systems that can provide this to Women, Mothers, Aunties and Grandmothers.

What do you believe are women's strengths, and what are the advantages of female leadership in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic?

The age-old adage is when you educate a girl, you educate a nation is true. Government strategies that focus attention on the girls providing them with opportunities at primary, secondary, tertiary and university levels have clearly demonstrated a rise in young women striving ahead to be leaders in different sectors in the nation. Women are naturals when it comes to nurturing people in their spheres of influence. This has been seen on a regular basis when it comes to the health system at community level. Village Health Teams - are leaders in their own right. They constitute of women that conduct more household visits and are easily better welcomed by families and listened too in the adoption of social and behaviourial practices. Furthermore, when female district officials address communities during rallies or through community radios on the benefits of adoption of positive social and behaviourial practices that focus on education, protection and health, there is usually better reception. This has been seen the uptake of Reproductive, Maternal, Neo-natal, Child, Adolescent Health services at health facilities and Enrollment of girl-child in schools over the last 20 years nationwide. At the national level, in the context of COVID-19, women leaders have further demonstrated that they can make the positive difference in curbing the rapid spread of the pandemic. The two top health officials in the Republic of Uganda are women, the Minister of Health - Dr. Jane Acheng, the Minister of State for Health (Primary Health Care) Dr. Moriku Joyce Kaducu and the Permanent Secretary - Dr. Diana Atwine gain attention during their weekly addresses to the public. They have a special measure of appeal to communities as they provide simple actions that each family unit, organization and district can adopt to ensure they benefit from not getting the COVID-19 virus. They also further illustrate that adoption of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) has health and economic benefits which is vital in the field of social and behavior change if you want communities to work towards prevention and response in addressing the spread of COVID-19.

What is your advice to women navigating their careers during a health crisis, as well as in a post COVID-19 pandemic world?

Persistence should always prevail. Women should keep focused on doing their best even with the hardship of family responsibilities in the unique environment of closed schools, curfews and partial lockdowns. They should never give up on their dreams to excel and take up opportunities that would provide them with more scope to experience and provide results in the development agenda of their communities and nation. On one level, COVID-19 has demonstrated to women, that they can be caretakers of families at the same be professionals at the workplace to ensure they play a nationalist role, doing their duty and saving lives. At another level, women who have had to stay away from their loved ones in other countries owing to nation lockdowns for a year are further demonstrating as that they are there to offer services in the countries they are working in, sacrificing time otherwise spent with their loved ones because they believe that humanity needs their call to duty. It is an extreme period but post COVID-19, I believe the aftereffects would make our human selves more empathetic because COVID-19 has demonstrated that when everyone works together, they can defeat a common enemy to Life, Development and Prosperity.