All hands on deck: From COVID-19 skeptics to health champions

UNICEF is working with partners to galvanize communities in the fight against COVID-19 and it's new variant, including in refugee settlements.

Jeanine Nijimbere at her stall at Mahama's central market
24 December 2021

It is a sunny Thursday afternoon and the central market at Mahama Refugee Camp in Eastern Rwanda is bustling with people coming in and out.

Loud music can be heard blaring from one corner of the market, where a small crowd has gathered. In between musical breaks, a salesman is heard making his pitch, urging marketgoers to buy potatoes at "giveaway prices".

Right next to the small congregation, a young lady, dressed in black trousers and a top with a bun hairstyle, is wearing a green-and-white reflector vest that matches one worn by another young man at the entrance of the market.

The two are youth volunteers, each armed with a bottle of hand sanitizer and an infrared thermometer. They are keeping a keen eye on everyone who walks through the entrance of the marketplace.

Their task is to help enforce COVID-19 preventive measures, including the requirement for anyone entering the market to wash their hands with soap.

When Jeanine Nijimbere, an entrepreneur, makes her way to the market, she is screened for temperature. She’s in a hurry but she still makes her way to the handwashing station not far from the entrance to wash her hands with soap. She then briskly walks to her stall, where she sells assorted merchandise, including apparel.

Clients are already waiting.

"I believe it is natural that some people will tend to let their guard down because COVID-19 has been here for a long time,” a masked-up Jeanine tells us after serving her clients. “However, if we are to ensure business continuity, we must act responsibly, we’re always reminded that this virus hasn’t gone anywhere, just yet.”

"When I first heard of COVID-19, it felt like a distant rumour, I actually didn't think it was real, I thought it was fake news as I just couldn’t get my head around it."

Jeanine Nijimbere

In the market, she says, they try to maintain physical distance as much as space can allow and keep their masks on, to avoid the spread of the virus.

“The youth volunteers cannot be everywhere,” says the entrepreneur pointing to the two volunteers standing at the entrance of the market. “It starts with me. It is my responsibility to ensure that at least my clients follow the guidelines when they come to buy goods from my stall.”

But Jeannine, like many others, initially didn’t take the pandemic seriously.

"When I first heard of COVID-19, it felt like a distant rumour, I actually didn't think it was real, I thought it was fake news as I just couldn’t get my head around it."

But it soon dawned on her that COVID-19 was real – and deadly too.

Understandably, she panicked. “We didn’t know exactly how to deal with the situation.”

Soon after the outbreak, the government started broadcasting messages about the pandemic, including on radio, which is the most popular means of media used in Rwanda. Yet, for people like Jeannine, this was still not enough because they woke up every morning going to earn a living and there was no time to listen to the radio.

Misconceptions, new variant

In November 2021, UNICEF and partners launched a campaign in the camp and around the host communities, broadcasting special radio programmes and community roadshows, aimed at raising awareness about COVID-19.

“The radio came to the market,” she says, referring to ADECCO Izuba Radio, a community radio station based in Ngoma District, which broadcast live COVID-19 communications in and around the camp, including markets. “This is where I spend most of my daytime and the approach couldn’t have been more appropriate for people like me.”

“I now know all about this pandemic, that’s why I have been able to keep myself and my children safe.”

Jeanine Nijimbere

"Now, more than ever, we need to take this pandemic seriously and be on alert as I have heard that there is a new variant which spreads faster than the earlier strains,” she said, referring to the recent outbreak of Omicron COVID-19 variant.

“I have tightened measures both at home and here (in the market); I keep reminding people to keep their distance, wash hands regularly, and put on their face-masks properly.”

The targeted mass mobilisation effort in and around the refugee camp is part of UNICEF’s broader support to the government’s COVID-19-related awareness-raising nationally.

Besides radio shows, the campaign also included roadshows and interpersonal sensitization sessions of children who attend Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers, parents, ECD caretakers, as well as community volunteers on prevention and precaution against the virus.

The campaign reached a total of 200,000 people in and around the camp, 52 per cent of whom are women, while it also directly served 100 ECD caretakers, with a view to ensuring safe re-opening of ECD centres. 

In another part of the camp, around 50 people gathered at a community hall to listen to a live special programme on how to protect oneself against COVID-19 on the Izuba radio station.

One of those present was Damien Ndayishimiye, a father of five and a middle-aged refugee from Burundi.

The radio programme addressed important issues like COVID-19 signs and symptoms, how the virus is transmitted, how it can be prevented from spreading, the importance of vaccines, additional safety measures, tips to protect mental well-being and continue practicing positive parenting in the context of the pandemic.    

The live broadcast lasted 90 minutes before the audience was allowed to ask questions on the virus and vaccines. The radio hosts also asked questions to the audience to make the session more engaging and interesting.

“What do you think is the importance of COVID-19 vaccines?” a host asks his keenly attentive audience. He was met with a flurry of accurate responses. Damien raises his hand to answer.

“This vaccine helps prevent severe illness in case one has contracted the virus,” he says. “But it’s no magic bullet, so it’s not a cure per se. That is why, even after vaccination, we must continue to take all precautions”.

That’s correct, the host says. There is applause in the hall.

After the session, Damien confesses he was a vaccine skeptic before the radio programme. “There were a lot of rumours about the safety of the vaccines, and I had my doubts.”

For weeks, Damien and his family stayed away from vaccination sites.

“One day I was invited to one of the live radio discussions a week after Radio Izuba had started the broadcasts here,” he says. “I remember that I asked many questions and each of them was answered to my satisfaction.”

Soon after, Damien and his wife received their first vaccine shots, so did their 17-year-old son a few days later.

“Once I was convinced it was easy to convince my family too, I was the one who was initially resisting the most.”

He says that his neighbors and friends have also since taken vaccines.

With generous support of USA UNICEF Fund / Next Generation, the awareness campaign also included specially created COVID-19 content for children, delivered through a daily radio programme known as Itetero, featuring songs, jingles, education ads, and child-friendly edutainment content.

The child-focused COVID-19 awareness programme also included quizzes on various thematic areas with prizes up for grabs – ranging from COVID-19 prevention coloring books and pencils to face-masks to sanitizers. Slots were also created on air for interactive radio sessions involving children aged 3-6, parents and caregivers both in and around the camp. Up to 30,000 children were reached.

For people like Jeanine and Damien, the campaign has been instrumental in bringing about behavioral change around COVID-19. “This programme has totally changed our thinking, we have also become change agents because we now know that for us to defeat this pandemic we’ll need all hands on deck.”