The Coronavirus challenge community influencers in South Sudan

Trusted members of communities are educating their neighbors on the Coronavirus disease

Mercy Kolok
A man looking at the camera
18 May 2020

YAMBIO, South Sudan - “I have stopped my community members from going to war, people highly respect me here and always listen to me,” says James Mabior Mading, a sub-chief in Baiporo, Yambio County in South Sudan.

Sixty-seven-year-old Mabior has been an assistant for the last 38 years, more than half of his lifetime, in Lakes State and in Yambio, the latter being a town bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo where he moved when war broke out in his hometown. Mabior plays an important role of creating awareness about life-saving practices such as the importance of immunizing children and safe hygiene practices including handwashing.

Three years ago, Mabior was trained as a social mobilizer by UNICEF and he has been very vocal on the practice of positive behaviors especially on health following the outbreak of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo just 40 kilometers away from his village. He has also been working with UNICEF and other partners to select and mentor community mobilizers who are the people knocking on doors and calling community meetings to spread lifesaving messages

A man walking outside his house

Mabior is also essential when it comes to dispelling rumors and correct misinformation around Ebola and other diseases.

“Some people were misinforming the community, saying that if you live very far in the forest, you will not get Ebola, but this is not true, so I have to correct such information. We have been living in fear of Ebola because there were cases in Congo which is very close to us.

As no new cases of Ebola are being reported in Congo, the people of Yambio thought they would now breath for a while after living in fear for one and a half year.  Now, new clouds are forming on the sky. South Sudan has reported its first case of COVID-19, neighboring DRC has reported 134 and the situation is evolving on a daily basis.

“Now we have new fears about the new disease called Coronavirus. A lot of rumors are already circulating all over,” says Mabior. “I don’t know about Coronavirus disease, but I am very much interested to know what it is, where it is coming from and how it can be prevented so that I can inform my community because this disease is dangerous,” he added.

A man sitting with children on his lap
Sultan James Anthony of the Bari Community (40) with some of his children

Two kilometers away, I meet, James Kenyi Anthony, a chief in the residential area of Baiporo. At 40 years of age, he is probably one of the youngest chiefs in South Sudan. He has been a chief for only three years and loves his job because he is supporting his people.

"I like being a chief because I get to teach my community about a lot of things including Ebola. Together with other chiefs, we work closely with community mobilizers and the surveillance team on Ebola to create awareness and report suspected cases,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges that Wani faces in his community is that despite getting the knowledge on prevention of diseases a lot of people find it hard to keep a distance or avoid touch especially during funerals and burials which are very emotional.

 “Now I hear there is a new disease called coronavirus, I am very worried and scared of this disease. It also poses new challenges for me because I have to tell my community to stop greeting each other and to keep physical distance from one another which will be deemed very rude, but I have to do it to save lives,” he says.

a mobilizer talking about COVID with a community member

Co-leading with the Ministry of Health and in collaboration with other partners, UNICEF has scaled up risk communication activities to create awareness and mobilize communities on the signs and symptoms of Coronavirus disease and how to prevent it. The messages are disseminated through radio in ten widely spoken languages, street announcements, loudhailers and distribution of communication materials translated into seven languages. While interpersonal communication remains the most preferred form of communication due to the low literacy levels in the country, a lot of community engagement activities have been stopped as a preventative measure of Coronavirus disease, meaning local influencers such as the two chiefs are more important than ever.

UNICEF is working through 2,500 community mobilizers to conduct house to house visits and community meetings to create awareness and mobilize communities on key behaviors on immunization of children, healthy eating practices for children and pregnant and lactating mothers, importance of education, sanitation and hygiene promotion.

UNICEF's COVID-19 risk communication activities is carried out in partnership with the World Bank and with support from UK Aid and the Hilton Foundation.