Youth volunteers take to the streets to mobilize against COVID- 19 in Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
“Would you please wear your mask properly, mom,” Yordanos Gudetta politely asks a vendor selling lime on the streets of Saris market. Yordanos then turns to three women standing very close to each other as they bargain the price of chickens caged inside a meshed wire net.
“It’s good that you are wearing a mask, but you can do your business standing further apart,” she says. Meanwhile, on the other side of the market, Mihret Haimanot, Yordanos’s friend, is telling a group of young men, enjoying their coffee, to take COVID precautions seriously.
The Saris market in the south of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is bustling with people and merchandise ranging from chickens, assorted vegetables and spices to household utensils and clothing.
“We are concerned that the coronavirus could easily spread in such settings,” says Yordanos. “That is why we are going around and advising people to wear masks and keep their distance.”
Yordanos and Mihret are third-year university students studying pharmacy. Their university is currently closed due to the coronavirus and the two young women are volunteering their time with the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS), which has a partnership with UNICEF to sensitize communities on COVID-19. Every day, they, with 257 other youth volunteers in the southern zone of Addis Ababa, walk around the crowded Saris market and the nearby taxi stations talking to people about COVID-19. They also conduct home visits.
They say many are still skeptical about applying the basic COVID prevention methods.
“Many people encourage us to continue our work when we talk to them about COVID-19,” says Yordanos. “But there are those who say, ‘here come the coronas,’ when they see us approaching.”
Such an incautious response does not discourage them at all. “We understand that people react in different ways. We have to be patient and continue talking to them until they reach understanding,” adds Mihret.
During the busy rush hour, the volunteers and their coordinators use the mobile speaker to amplify their messages. As the taxi queues begin to build up, the volunteers go around sanitizing people’s hands.
“This is a very busy area,” says Mandefro Negash, head of the ERCS Southern Addis Ababa Zone. “The market is next to a taxi station and it is teeming with people every day. That is why we focus our awareness-raising activities here.”
Since mid-August, Ethiopia has been registering more than 1,000 positive COIVD cases daily in a clear sign that community transmission is peaking. Though the government has made wearing a mask in public mandatory, it has not shut down the city, arguing that it would hurt people who live hand to mouth; people like Fetia Hussien, a mother of two, who comes to the market every day to sell her vegetables. “I have to sell these vegetables and make money to support my family,” she says. “Otherwise, how would I make it?’’
Fetia values the work of the youth volunteers. “They are doing this for us. We need to follow their instructions when they tell us to wear a mask, as we do the police,” she says.
The ERCS, in partnership with UNICEF, is training volunteers to work with communities in 134 targeted woredas (districts) in Ethiopia. “People living in congested urban areas such as marketplaces, slums, and remote areas with low access to the media will be reached with COVID prevention messages,” says Andinet Chala, UNICEF’s Communication for Development specialist. “This will be done mainly through the deployment of 1,500 volunteers from the targeted communities. The partnership aims to reach nine million people.”
The volunteers also work with community influencers such as religious and community leaders, women’s groups, and frontline health workers.
Yordanos and Mihret are grateful to be part of a young force of volunteers responding to the pandemic. They believe their efforts are helping to stem the full brunt of the pandemic on their communities. They are determined to do whatever they can to address denial and complacency.
“I wish it [the pandemic] will be over soon and we can get back to our lives. I really miss school and my friends,” says Yordanos. But until then, they keep alerting their community to mask up and keep their distance.