Taking a trip with #TheTruck

Reflections on an 18-wheeled communication platform in action

Pumla Ntlabati, UNICEF South Africa consultant
UNICEF South Africa/2021
07 June 2021

For one of my all-time favourite pastimes in the world, it’s been a while since I last did any traveling. Of course, a global pandemic is to blame but so consumed has my life been with COVID-19 that I had completely switched to “lockdown mode” – in body and in mind.

When I made the decision to leave my home office in Johannesburg and head out to the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) it was with mixed feelings. While I was excited to return to a familiar beat – reminding me of my time as a researcher, when hopping from one province to another and from village to village was something you did in the blink of an eye – I did have some first-day-of-school nerves as I stepped out of my front door.

But set out I did for the greener hills and cloud-laden skies of KZN. The province has it all – the endless green, the long drives across vast fields, the laid-back lifestyle, the warm Indian Ocean, the humid air and the energy – a simmering hum that lies just beneath the surface – is everywhere you turn.

It was this energy that burst into our aeroplane as the doors opened at King Shaka International Airport and reminded me of the task at hand. We were here to catch-up with “The Truck”, our unique multi-media and multi-dimensional deployee that had been criss-crossing South Africa stopping in cities, towns and villages ensuring that communities are kept abreast of COVID-19 developments through simple but targeted messages.

UNICEF South Africa/2021/Hartford

The truck is a multi-media messenger on wheels that broadcasts local stories about how COVID-19 has affected people’s lives with the aim of increasing COVID-19 prevention practices including handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing. It supports the efforts of provincial health departments and is accompanied by trained community engagement teams on the ground to create further awareness and increase access to routine health services such as TB and HIV screening, blood pressure testing as well as testing for COVID-19.

As South Africa’s vaccination roll-out is gathering pace, the truck also serves as a key source of trusted information – addressing people’s concerns and encouraging uptake with clear fact-based messages. Provincial health teams and UNICEF youth volunteers are now accompanying the truck to help register the over-60’s for vaccinations.

When my colleague and I arrived at Esikhawini Mall two-and-a-half hours North of Durban, we could see the blinking behemoth, a spectacle of sight and sound, beckoning from the edge of the mall’s parking lot.

UNICEF South Africa/2021/Dlamini

“Join my team, join the vacciNATION!”, could be heard above the hooting of taxi’s and the rustle of hurried month-end shoppers. The same soundbite came from the truck screen through the voice of one of the interviewees, accompanied by huge text alongside an inset of a sign-language interpreter who was conveying the same message.

People stood, shopping bags at their sides, watched and took it in. A few shook their heads and complained that COVID-19 is a “rich man’s disease,” or that the pandemic is a population reduction strategy and the work of global elites. But most who came forward to speak with the nurses and healthcare workers providing services asked if they could be vaccinated, there and then.

The truck unearthed people’s concerns and fears about COVID-19 and vaccines wherever it went. The rumours and conspiracy theories were put forward alongside genuine concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy and, most significantly, requests to know the facts. In all cases, healthcare workers were able to share the correct information and to respond to falsehoods with facts.

UNICEF South Africa/2021/Dlamini

Targeting ‘hotspot areas’ like transport hubs and shopping centres, the truck’s presence lifted the mood, cutting a wake of festivity after almost a year of consecutive lockdowns.

As the time came to move on, the truck team and I were pressed with requests for additional or longer stops. Where possible, the truck took detours down dirt roads, through suburbs and across highways to accommodate these requests.

“The beauty of the truck is that it’s a non-human contact solution – it can get to where people are and speak to them in their languages,” says our partner and the truck coordinator, Fungayi Kanyuchi.

Where many are distrusting of vaccines and of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, speaking in English can sometimes exacerbate these feelings. Witnessing people stop to watch the videos being played in their local language, in isiZulu for KZN, the truck’s ability to convey messages that truly connected with people was clear.

UNICEF South Africa/2021/Hartford

After six days on the road, the truck headed for North-West Province to support the provincial health department in running a similar campaign. Much as I had forgotten what it was like to travel, I’d also forgotten the feeling of joy that comes with witnessing the impact of our work.