On Rwanda’s front lines to contain a pandemic

UNICEF supports field consultants like Odette to communicate risks and engage with communities across the country in the fight against COVID-19.

By Steve Nzaramba
21 August 2020

KIREHE, Rwanda As dusk envelopes Kirehe, a dusty outpost in the far south-eastern corner of Rwanda, the usual hustle and bustle that characterizes the town gradually settles down. Under normal circumstances, late evening is a time for most people to sit back, relax and unwind after a busy day.

But for Odette Mpungirehe and other members of the Kirehe District COVID-19 Command Post, the day’s work is still ongoing.

Odette Mpungirehe, a UNICEF consultant conducting risk communication and community engagement activities to fight COVID-19, stands near the market in Kirehe District, Rwanda.
Odette Mpungirehe, UNICEF consultant, conducts risk communication, community engagement and health promotion activities in Rwanda's Kirehe District to help keep COVID-19 at bay.

“My daily work starts and ends with a command post meeting. There, I present daily briefs on COVID-19 risk communication and community engagement, identify challenges, and make recommendations to address them."

Odette Mpungirehe

“I also coordinate the communications cell’s daily and weekly plans and present them to the coordination and task force team members during the meetings," says Odette.

Odette is one of four Risk Communication, Community Engagement and Health Promotion Consultants hired by UNICEF with support from the Government of Japan and deployed to the Health Communications Division of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC/RHCC) to support effective coordination and reporting of Communication for Development interventions related to COVID-19 preparedness and response. 

Like most districts in Rwanda, Kirehe began COVID-19 prevention measures early in March 2020, with the Command Post beginning operations in June. So far, risk communication activities have reached over 350,000 people.

Odette Mpungirehe, a UNICEF consultant conducting risk communication and community engagement activities to fight COVID-19, briefs youth volunteers near the market in Kirehe District, Rwanda.
Part of Odette's work is to brief Kirehe District's youth volunteers on how they can help prevent COVID-19 in their communities, such as encouraging handwashing and physical distancing in crowded markets.

Kirehe District is considered a high-risk zone for spreading COVID-19 due to its proximity to both Tanzania and Burundi. Although land borders are closed to travelers, commercial truck drivers crossing from Tanzania often bring new cases of COVID-19 along with their cargo.

“After our morning meeting concludes, it’s straight to the field,” Odette says.

In a pick-up truck loaded with loudspeakers and other sound equipment, Odette and her colleagues choose one of Kirehe’s 12 sectors and drive slowly through the community. The loudspeakers blast pre-recorded messages urging residents to help fight COVID-19 by adhering to public health guidelines: regular handwashing with soap and water, physical distancing, and of course, wearing a mask at all times when out in public. 

The pickup truck slows to crawling speed when in a densely populated part of the sector, and finally parks outside a bustling market area.

Odette Mpungirehe, a UNICEF consultant conducting risk communication and community engagement activities to fight COVID-19, briefs youth volunteers near the market in Kirehe District, Rwanda.
In the crowded Kirehe District market, physical distancing can be nearly impossible. With her youth volunteers, it is Odette's job to enforce this COVID-19 prevention measure as much as possible.

In Kirehe, as is the case in just about every rural area in Rwanda, the market does not open for business every day. There are select days of the week during which the market comes alive, and Friday is one such day. 

Odette disembarks from the pickup truck and briefs a small team of youth volunteers on the task ahead: to work the crowds in the marketplace, reminding them to respect the physical distancing regulations and to also wear their masks properly.

Working hand in hand with the district’s youth volunteers, the communications cell team members spend the entire morning canvasing the market and its environs, spreading the word and reinforcing the message of how to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and what to do if you do fall ill. 

Youth volunteers in Kirehe District, Rwanda, help fight COVID-19 alongside UNICEF consultants in risk communication and community engagement, encouraging handwashing with soap and physical distancing.
Youth volunteers help Odette spread the word about COVID-19 in Kirehe's bustling markets, encouraging handwashing with soap and physical distancing as much as possible.

“I also try my best to sensitize traders to accept only digital payments,” Odette says. “This is a crucial area of focus in our daily work. If we can get them to buy into this habit and shun the practice of exchanging bank notes, we will have made great strides in the fight to contain this virus.”

Despite the relentless efforts by Odette and her fellow communications cell members, there remains a lot more work to be done.

Ensuring that residents maintain physical distancing in crowded areas like markets and bus parks remains a challenge. Proper wearing of masks continues to be a challenge as well; when supervised by law enforcement and district officials, residents will comply, only to drop their masks to their chins or remove them altogether when unsupervised.

To address these challenges, the Command Post task force has created the Kirehe District COVID-19 Prevention Policy which emphasizes interpersonal communication between individuals and by engaging community and opinion leaders, and local community influencers such as religious leaders, teachers, community health workers, and local chapters of the National Women's Council, National Youth Council, and National Council of Persons with Disabilities. 

“While the residents understand the importance of adhering to the public health guidelines, they are yet to fully embrace the guidelines and make them their own.”

Odette Mpungirehe
Marketgoers in Kirehe, Rwanda queue while practicing physical distancing, a COVID-19 prevention measure encouraged by UNICEF's risk communication and community engagement consultants.
Marketgoers in Kirehe queue while practicing physical distancing, an important COVID-19 prevention measure.

With over 400,000 inhabitants across Kirehe’s 12 sectors, Odette and her colleagues have their work cut out for them if they are to keep the number of COVID-19 cases at a minimum. But her hard work has paid off so far; as of August, there were just two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kirehe District.

Odette firmly believes that a consolidated effort and team spirit are the main ingredients for containing the spread of the deadly COVID-19.

“In my work, I have found that risk communication and community engagement is not the responsibility of just one institution or organization. It is rather a shared responsibility, where different partners and the community combine efforts and coordinate to help people protect themselves, their relatives and their neighbours against COVID-19 and other diseases. Together, I am sure we can overcome COVID-19.”