Volunteer women march to build public trust on COVID-19 vaccines
Awbare, Somali Region
“My first reaction when I heard about the COVID-19 pandemic was of a denial,” says Yusra Abdulahi Ige, a 35-year-old community volunteer who lives in Awbare town, 71 km north of Jigjiga city in Ethiopia. “I thought it was an exaggeration, but it is not.”
Yusra received messages on COVID 19 pandemic and its prevention from multiple sources including participation in a two days social mobilizers training on COVID-19. These messages and training helped her to think differently and take action to curb the spread of COVID-19 within her community. She advised community members to use face mask and regularly wash their hands. Yusra became a pioneer and a role model to curb COVID 19 pandemic in her village.
Yusara values education and is determined to support her 10-year-old child to achieve that goal. Two of her children are currently studying at university and the rest are either in secondary or in primary school.
Like many other single mothers, Yusra’s life is of a daily struggle: to put food on the table for her family and find time to contribute to the welfare of her community. She acts as a bridge between families and health facilities.
Yusra visits her neighbours early in the morning, and share information related to family health, environmental hygiene, and sanitation. Her neighbours come around to hear something new and she encourages women and children to access services from the health centre. Yusra recently advised elders to receive their two doses of COVID-19 vaccination.
Yusra is a member of a well-organized self-help women group in Awbare town. She took a two-day training organized by UNICEF and the regional Government on social mobilization and community engagement. Each woman in the group is tasked to conduct home visits to at least three families per day delivering valuable messages, on COVID-19, sanitation, and nutrition. This way, they influence their own communities’ perception, attitude, and health-seeking behaviour in a positive way.
The women group also holds regular meetings and collect small cash contributions from members. The money collected will be put in a savings account to support the most vulnerable families, in case of urgent medical and financial needs.
Yusra and her volunteer colleagues are highly respected and accepted by their community. Their work is critical to tackling social barriers in areas where health services and outreach programmes run by NGO’s and government are weak.
When the COVID pandemic hit Ethiopia, the women volunteers, after receiving orientation on risk communication on COVID -19, started mobilizing their community to dispel rumors and misconception about the pandemic. They shared messages to dispel doubts and promoted COVID-19 prevention methods such as handwashing, physical distancing and wearing of facemasks.
“It wasn’t easy to convince people against the pandemic,” Yusra says. “They prefer not to listen about it. They didn’t think COVID was real.” “The community resisted to wear face mask properly and keep their distance, they thought COVID -19 didn’t exist. Additionally they believed in different myths about the vaccine, for example, the vaccine is not safe and no one knows about it, that vaccine is not safe and feared against blood clotting. However, with intensified community mobilization and engagement and with support from woreda health office, community members are slowly accepting vaccine uptake.
When asked about her first reaction to COVID-19, Yusra remembers reacting with shock and denial, just like many others. She said everybody “fled not to listen to COVID-19 news”. Yusra and her volunteer friends stared receiving risk communication orientation and in turn started engaging their community to dispel rumours and promote COVID-19 prevention measures: hand washing, social distancing and wearing of masks. Yusra became role model and things started changing.
“Yusra’s message to her community is clear: get vaccinated , wash hands, respect social distance, and always wear mask.”
While the community in Awbare began slowly accepting the preventive messages on COVID-19, a national vaccination campaign for the elderly and people with underlying conditions started in Ethiopia on March 12, 2020. Yet another challenge for Yusara and her colleagues comes with the campaign: vaccine hesitancy. There were a lot of rumours on COVID-19 vaccines like ‘people will be injected with virus’ and ‘it isn’t safe’. Other people were also worried about the vaccine side effect like fever, joint pain. Yet, Yusra remained optimistic and continued having a dialogue with community members to dispel these misconceptions.
When the vaccination started in their village, she along with all-female volunteers were the first to come forward and take the COVID-19 vaccination to set an example. Seeing female volunteers taking the COVID-19 jab, most of the community accepted the vaccine. It was a “success” says Yusra with a smile on her face. Then, Yusra and her team mobilized particularly people with diabetic, hypertension and other chronic diseases as high-risk groups.
Abdurahman Mohamed Awbare woreda health office Immunization focal point who trained on cold chain and COVID-19 vaccine management by UNICEF through Government says “the vaccination rate for the first dose in our village Awbare is above 95 per cent”.