All IN: a collective push to overcome a deadly pandemic

UNICEF is working with partners to ensure a ‘whole of society’ approach to the transmission of COVID-19 prevention messages, including those living with disabilities, staying true to the principle of leaving no one behind.

By Steve Nzaramba
Nishimwe Dorcas
14 December 2021

Western Rwanda - Meet Dorcas Nishimwe, a 20-year old girl living in Rubavu, a district bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her hair is woven into short dreadlocks, a red bandana keeping the strands of hair in check. A megawatt smile completes the picture of a beautiful, fearless, and energetic young lady, ready to take on the world – with one aim - to win.

With no outwardly visible physical disability, Dorcas could easily pass for any other adolescent girl. The reality though is a bit different. Dorcas was born with a hearing and speech impairment. She is the eldest of three siblings, who were also born with the same disability.

Despite her boundless energy and positive outlook on life, Dorcas is the first to admit that life as a person with a disability is very challenging.     

“It isn’t easy living with a disability. Everywhere you look, every day, there are subtle reminders that you are not 'whole.'

"When you see people dancing but you can’t hear the music being played, when you want to say goodbye to a childhood friend who is leaving for college and you can’t say the words you want to say to them, it’s tough.”

Dorcas Nishimwe

When COVID-19 struck, it was yet another cruel reminder that the needs of persons living with disabilities are often not considered, leaving them secluded and not feeling like they too have a role to play in society. 

“COVID-19 was – and still is – the talk of the town, obviously,” she conveys through sign language. “But in the early days of the pandemic, persons living with a disability did not receive prevention messages and honestly, did not understand what all the fuss was about,” she recounts.

“We would only get information by speculating amongst ourselves about what COVID-19 really was, and this often meant getting second-hand information and even entirely false information,” she says.

Dorcas is part of a special group of persons living with disabilities who have banded together to form an association and engage in small-scale businesses such as sewing and embroidery in order to lift themselves out of poverty and combat the syndrome of dependency.

Session on COVID-19 prevention measures being conducted by a UNICEF and Red Cross staff

UNICEF, working with the Rwanda Red Cross Society, has deployed volunteers throughout the country to combat myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 and its vaccine, with a special focus on such groups of persons living with disabilities.

The volunteers go to great lengths to seek out special groups of persons living with disabilities and approach them, engaging them in conversation about the deadly virus and reminding them to always adhere to the established prevention measures: washing their hands regularly with soap and clean water, using a hand sanitizer if unable to wash hands, wearing a mask when out in public and of course, practicing physical distancing.

The difference is that the message is transmitted using an interpreter who understands sign language, and this has made a world of difference for people like Dorcas.  

Red Cross volunteer Christine Ingabire during a sensitization session

“I’m grateful for volunteers such as Christine. Theirs is an often thankless but important job, to educate the masses and constantly remind us to never let up in the fight against this pandemic."

Dorcas Nishimwe

The 416-strong corps of volunteers have their work cut out for them: there is one volunteer for each village, which hosts up to 20 households. But this does not deter them, and they work tirelessly every day to make sure that the COVID-19 prevention message reaches all of society, including those living with various forms of disability like Dorcas.

Armed with a megaphone and a KOBO-enabled smartphone for data collection – the other facet of their life-saving work – the volunteers canvas their respective neighborhoods, spreading the COVID-19 prevention messaging but also collecting data on myths and misconceptions about the virus and its vaccine.

The KOBO application on their smartphones is a software that is used for primary data collection in humanitarian emergencies and other challenging field environments. It enables users such as Christine to enter data from interviews or other primary data -- online or offline.

This information is synthesized and used for evidence-based planning on how to address these myths and misconceptions, by tailoring the messaging to targeted groups, in a language they can relate to.

“It is hugely satisfying to see the direct – and indirect – impact of our work,” says Christine Ingabire, a Red Cross volunteer who lives and works in Rubavu District.

“Meeting and engaging with vibrant young people like Dorcas, who despite living with a disability are making the most of their lives, really inspires me to keep going,” she says.

Red Cross volunteer Christine Ingabire during a sensitization session

She adds that the special needs of persons living with disability should not be seen as a hinderance – or even a reason to leave them behind all together – instead they should be catered for, to ensure that they too are included in everything that relates to development of the society.

“This includes ensuring that they too receive COVID-19 prevention messaging, whatever it takes,” Christine says.  

“This helps to ensure that they do not fall prey to the rumours that persist about the virus, and myths and misconceptions about the vaccine, is the only way to eventually overcome the pandemic and return to normalcy,” she adds.  

“I’m always very happy to meet and have a discussion with the volunteers when they come to see us,” Dorcas excitedly says.

“But further to that, they go to great lengths to ensure that persons living with disability are also reached, and for this, I salute you. You make us feel cared for and included along with the rest of the society and this is no small thing,” she says thoughtfully.

“I pledge to play my part in sensitizing my fellow youths about the pandemic and to get vaccinated as soon as they can. Together, we can – and will – prevail!” she concludes emphatically. 

Dorcas Nishimwe gestures as she communicates using sign language