In Mali’s COVID-19 fight, knowledge is power

Young people in Mali’s displacement camps are being empowered with information about how to protect themselves and their communities.

By Eliane Luthi and Drissa Kone
Mali. A teenager stands outside a tent.
20 July 2020

SÉVARÉ, Mali – “I’m scared,” says 15-year-old Hawa when the topic of the coronavirus comes up. “I know [it] has killed a lot of people around the world.”

Hawa already had a lot to cope with even before the emergence of COVID-19. She comes from the Mopti region in Mali, which has seen a surge in violent attacks and intercommunal clashes since 2017. Hawa was in Bare Dar Salam in March 2019 when 85 children were killed in a brutal attack in the neighbouring village of Ogossagou. She fled to safety with her family, eventually arriving at the Socoura displacement camp in Sévaré.

“I want to make sure that the coronavirus doesn’t come here,” she says.

While around half of COVID-19 cases in Mali have been confirmed in the capital Bamako, recent weeks have seen an surge of cases in Timbuktu and Mopti, threatening displacement sites like Socoura, where families live in tents in close proximity to each other and often have limited access to quality social services and reliable information.

Relaying the message

As news of the arrival of the coronavirus spread on social media, instant messaging, and through word of mouth, so did some scepticism. Some said the virus would die in Mali’s notoriously high temperatures, while others said COVID-19 only affects people in certain countries. Some claimed the virus was completely made up and that there was nothing to worry about.

But as the first cases of COVID-19 in Mali were confirmed in late March, the International Organisation for Migration, supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, began training community “relays” at internal displacement sites to combat such misinformation. They also provided guidance on good handwashing techniques, physical distancing and the use of face masks. UNICEF also distributed handwashing devices and soap to displacement sites.

Oumar, a neighbour of Hawa, is one of those community relays. He sighs as he recalls the denial and misinformation he has confronted about the coronavirus.

“There are four of us here. We coordinate with each other to convince the remaining community members that still don’t believe in the illness,” he says. “The training we received really helped us to provide factual information to the families here.”

Mali. A man holds up a poster with guidance on preventing COVID-19.

Since receiving training from Oumar, Hawa can rattle off a list of key prevention measures.

“I learned that we should stay at least one metre away from other people, that we should sneeze or cough into the fold of our elbows, that we should wash our hands frequently with clean water and soap, that we shouldn’t shake hands, and we should wear a face mask,” she says.

Mali. Residents at an IDP camp stand in line wearing face masks.

Child-friendly spaces already established by UNICEF and partners in 2019 have also proved invaluable in sharing information about the pandemic. The child-friendly space at Hawa’s camp provides children who have fled violence with a safe place to play, meet other children, and a chance to talk with psychologists and social workers. The spaces help rebuild a sense of childhood, but also provide an opportunity to raise awareness of important issues like child marriage, child labour – and now the coronavirus.

Mali. Residents in an IDP camp listen to a session discussing COVID-19 prevention.

Oumar has been paying regular visits to the child-friendly space to teach children how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the space itself has also had to adapt. Previously, as many as 40 children at a time would congregate there. Now, the number allowed in at any one time has been reduced, children sit at least a metre apart from each other, and everyone washes their hands before entering.

Mali. A girl washes her hands.

“We have to continue to provide this type of critical support to these children, who are from the most vulnerable families in the region and have been exposed to the worst types of violence,” says Ahmed Ould Sid'ahmed Ould Aida, head of UNICEF’s field office in Mopti. “We’re adapting to ensure the children can still benefit from critical services, all while minimizing their risk of exposure to the illness.”

The combination of a safe space and being well-informed about COVID-19 has helped rebuild Hawa’s confidence, and she’s now sharing her knowledge with other children at the displacement camp.

Oumar says that Hawa has become a strong advocate for taking preventative measures. “She even keeps reminding her mother to wash her hands,” he says, smiling. “And she’s the one that has been showing the other children here how to wash their hands properly.”

The newly confident Hawa says she dreams of one day being able to go back to her home village – and taking what she has learned with her. “I’d like there to be a child-friendly space there too, so that I can keep meeting up with the other children and talking with them.”


UNICEF is working with partners to support the Government of Mali in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To find out more about UNICEF’s work in Mali, click here.