The unsung pandemic heroes

Extraordinary people are going above and beyond to serve their communities.

Judith Candiru, an Assistant Nursing Officer in Uganda's Yumbe District, poses for a photo.
11 March 2022

For some it's a sense of duty. For others it's an obligation. And then there are those for which it’s a necessity.  

Two years ago the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Nobody knew exactly what lay ahead. But over the course of the following 24 months, extraordinary women and men have risen to the occasion to serve their communities. 

Their names aren't necessarily recognizable. But the actions of these heroes have without a shadow of a doubt made our world a safer, better place. We want to introduce you to just a few of these incredible people. 

A Ugandan healthcare worker uses a megaphone to encourage her community to get vaccinated 

When Judith Candiru was growing up, she always admired the white outfits nurses wore. For her, it was emblematic of the care they provided. Now she’s one of them. She takes pride in putting on that sharp uniform, complete with a yellow belt.  

Judith Candiru, an Assistant Nursing Officer in the Yumbe District of Uganda, provides COVID-19 vaccination services to her community.

COVID-19 has been personal for Candiru. She contracted the virus at one point and recalls the stigma she and her family endured at the time.  

“This was the saddest moment of my career. I and my family were shunned by the community.”  

It didn’t stop her though. She recovered and bounced back to work. Candiru passionately serves the people of Yumbe District in northern Uganda, which straddles the border with South Sudan.  

Judith Candiru travels on the back of a bike, holding a megaphone, to deliver crucial information and deliver healthcare services to her community.

In the morning, she heads to the maternity ward where she cares for premature babies. Through UNICEF-supported training, she’s able to support sick infants and ensure they thrive. 

But that’s just part of her day. Throughout the pandemic, after consultations and finishing her rounds on the ward, she’ll head out into the local community either on a motorbike or on foot. 

Equipped with a megaphone, Candiru has been amplifying the message that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and important. Her message has resonated. Members of the community trust her, and that’s evident as one by one they sit on a bench and receive their shots from Candiru.  

Climbing mountains and crossing canyons in Nepal with vaccines on her back 

Birma Kunwar has been weaving her way up mountains and across suspended footbridges for years now. With a box of vaccines perched on her back, she ascends hilly pathways in the remote part of Nepal’s far west.  

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kunwar would collect lifesaving vaccines in the town of Khalanga, which is the district headquarters of the Darchula District. Those doses were mainly for the routine immunization of children that lived in the villages that nest on the hillside she climbs.  

The pandemic brought a new challenge and a new opportunity: “I’ve been walking the same path but with these new vaccines,” she says.

Birma Devi Kunwar takes COVID-19 vaccines on her back to remote hillside communities in Nepal.

Her destination on this journey is a health post in the village of Duhun. And at some times of the year, it can only be reached on foot.  

“The roads here are unreliable for many months of the year, particularly during the monsoon,” Kunwar notes as she explains the dangers posed by landslides. “It’s a risky ride.” 

After walking for hours, Birma Kunwar administers vaccines to families at the Pipalchauri Health Post in Nepal's remote far-west.

So with the weight of a community’s health on her back, she often walks the entire stretch. That takes between three to four hours. For Kunwar, that journey is well worth it. Delivering essential vaccines to these communities is not only a job for her, it’s a duty.  

“People are eagerly waiting for vaccines, they ask me constantly when they will arrive, when they can get it, when it will be their turn. All the time.” 

The teenage innovator whose invention is making handwashing safer 

Emmanuel Cosmos Msoka is an innovator and an activist. It’s no coincidence that the 18-year-old from Tanzania invented a crucial hygiene tool during the pandemic that has a water theme to it. 

“I was born at the foot of Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro," he says. The only place in my country where water turns to snow and ice.” 

18-year-old Emmanuel Cosmas Msoka, who is an innovator and activist in Tanzania, poses for a photo.
UNICEF Tanzania

Emmanuel grew up with a desire to change the way things are normally done and to help solve social problems. That’s what he’s achieved. When COVID-19 arrived in Tanzania and his community struggled to combat the disease, he stepped up.  

His idea: a handwashing machine that uses foot pedals to function, in turn reducing the chance of spreading the virus. Since developing the technology, he’s been able to supply over 400 handwashing stations across northern Tanzania.  

For his work, Emmanuel was appointed as a UNICEF Youth Advocate and nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, awarded annually to a child who has made a significant contribution to advocating for children’s rights.  

Caring for her siblings while studying in times of loss  

Keysha is 14 years old. But her wisdom and thoughtfulness go beyond her years, as she’s had to grow up fast. Her mother, who worked at a restaurant, lost her life to COVID-19. 

“Our mother worked 12-hour days when the restaurant opened for business again,” Keysha says. “Her immune system was weak, that’s probably why she got COVID.” 

14-year-old Keysha, stands on the right next to her two younger siblings, Afiqa and Khansa.
14-year-old Keysha, stands on the right next to her two younger siblings, Afiqa and Khansa.

Keysha has had to take on more responsibility, caring for her two younger siblings. She’s been looking after her 7-year-old sister Afiqa whose been particularly affected. After school, Afiqa will often retreat to her room and spend hours watching family videos with her mother’s voice.  

In addition to her caregiving role, Keysha is aware of her father’s financial struggles as the family’s sole breadwinner. He works as a parking attendant at the restaurant where his late wife also worked. So, to help out, Keysha is planning to enroll in a vocational school that will enable her to get a job faster and support her father.

“I can do anything – perhaps even go to university one day.” 

14-year-old Keysha works on a school assignment at her home in Sragen in Indonesia.

Along with her siblings, Keysha is among tens of thousands of children that have lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19 in Indonesia. They’re being assisted by UNICEF’s mental health and psychosocial support programme, with the help of local governments.