Keeping distance defied health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
We are teaching communities how to keep their distance, but we cannot keep our distance from our communities
Halaba Town, SNNP region: Selamawit Nigussie (28) is a passionate and dedicated health extension worker at the Gedeb Health Post who takes pride in her work. She has served at the health post for the past 10 years and earned a lot of respect in her community.
Since the COVID-19 virus pandemic erupted two years ago, her routine work to provide care for a broad range of health issues, mostly for women and children, has been disrupted and COVID-19 conquered.
“When COVID-19 came into the picture, it was so chaotic. Everything went to a standstill including transportation. We started to panic and advised our communities to buy and stock up on their food. We immediately had to divert our activities into teaching about the virus and going house to house teaching people to wear masks, keep their distance, and wash their hands with soap.”
With the support of the local administration, a temporary covid rehabilitation center was set up in a boarding school to detect cases coming from various routes outside Halaba Town including from Addis. They also formed a committee that followed up on quarantine cases and also started stocking up on mattresses and food items.
“Thank God, there was no death,” confessed Selamawit.
According to Selamawit, it took some time to persuade people to take proper preventive measures against the virus.
“There was a misconception, especially in rural areas as they strongly believed that their lives are only in the hands of ‘Allah’. They also thought that the vaccine kills people. For some time, they ignored our messages and even continued with the intimate customary greetings. We had to work tirelessly and in a coordinated manner with the women development army, city administrators, and woreda officials to teach our communities the prevention methods.”
Selamawit also believes that it takes trust-building to encourage communities to accept and trust the COVID-19 vaccines.
“They believed in us as health workers. They believe that I will not give them something that can be deadly. I also tell them the potential side effects that may or may not happen to make them alert and manage expectations. We assimilate ourselves with the community. We eat what they eat, drink what they drink, and listen and understand their thoughts courteously.”
Recently, there is a lot of progress as more and more people have started taking the vaccine and even demanding it.
"Since more and more people have started taking the vaccine, we are now running out of it. Now that there is a demand, it’s not nice to say it is not available. Some were even begging for it. That’s why we have informed concerned authorities of the same.”
Despite all the hardships and health risks, she believes that health workers need to continue staying on the frontline to save lives.
“I’m so proud of myself to be at the forefront to fight the pandemic. I had to sacrifice myself as the need for an immediate response to save lives becomes critical. We are teaching communities how to keep their distance, but we cannot keep our distance from the situation.”
Dedicated health workers like Selamawit do not work alone. They involve influential people in the community including religious leaders, government administrators, and the woman’s development army who are role models in the community.
Denbele Sinaro (35) is one of the leaders of the women’s development army responsible for promoting preventive health practices and behaviors in her community. Just like Selamawit, she also does not have time to relax. She goes house to house to reach and teach communities about the pandemic, prevention methods, and the importance of taking the vaccine. She also informs the community as to where to take the vaccine and spread the word to their peers.
“I tell people that they should not be afraid to take the vaccine. Some of them have heard of the side effects like headaches and swelling in the arm. Others feel that it kills people. But I tell them that I have taken the vaccine myself and I am still living. I also tell them that the government doesn’t bring something that will kill its people,” said Denbele.
Zubayda Abdella (27) is a mother of three children who lives in Gedeba Kebele. She has also taken the vaccine along with her husband.
“Just like other members of the community, I was scared of the virus at first. I heard that it kills people. But the health workers came and told us to wear masks and wash our hands. They also taught us the importance of taking the vaccine. That’s why I got vaccinated,” said Zubayda.
UNICEF supported the national Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) strategy in high-risk woredas and business outlets, provided sanitizer and facemasks to strengthen prevention efforts, social mobilization through mass media, support operational costs in the treatment centers, advocacy, and media engagement, and implemented interventions in all regions including in SNNP region to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. UNICEF also has been supporting the implementation and monitoring of demand promotion interventions on COVID-19 vaccination at national, sub-national, and community levels via various community and communication platforms.
The national-level vaccination launching event was followed by regional campaigns. Initially, the vaccination was administered to frontline health workers, support staff, the elderly with underlying conditions, and other high-risk groups to ensure that the limited vaccine supply is utilized wisely. The vaccine effort gradually increased with the support of UNICEF and key partners like WHO, GAVI, and CEPI collaborating through the COVAX facility. The SNNP health bureau received the required doses and started to vaccinate the community.
Since the onset of the pandemic in Ethiopia, the SNNP region was one of the recipients of UNICEF’s response in terms of finance, logistics, and technical support both at the regional health bureau and woreda levels. This was made possible by funding from the European Union to enable UNICEF to reach the vaccine-eligible population residing in the most vulnerable communities across Ethiopia with COVID-19 vaccines and transmit key messages on COVID-19 prevention.
As a result of these efforts, the COVID testing capacity of the region has increased, the vaccine uptake climbed as well as the communities even demand the vaccines.
“The disease is still there. There shouldn’t be any negligence in prevention. Even now, people are dying. I call on everyone especially those that are educated to support us in teaching communities about COVID-19. We can’t just do it alone!” stresses Selamawit.