Ebola casts long shadow as the coronavirus sparks new fears
South Sudan is battling several disease outbreaks in-country while the threat of Ebola remains.
Victoria Hayat is getting ready to go to work. In her one-room, mud-and-thatch house in Yambio in South Sudan, she lays out the tools of her trade on her bed: bright posters, notebooks and a megaphone.
Victoria spends her days walking up and down local roads, dispensing health information by using her megaphone and showing posters to passers-by. The 26-year-old, who works as a social mobilizer on behalf of UNICEF, teaches the community on key behaviours focusing on health messages such as the important of immunization, nutrition, encouraging parents to send their children to school, promotion of proper hygiene and sanitation and providing information on child protection.
Following the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which is 40 kilometres from her hometown Yambio, she has been sensitizing her community on Ebola. Now she has a new poster and a new threat to combat: COVID-19.
“I fear diseases like Ebola. We live near the border with [the Democratic Republic of] Congo where people have died from it. Now there is a new threat called coronavirus,” she said.
For Victoria and other social mobilizers in one of the world’s poorest countries, the future will be very challenging. Their work will likely become even more arduous as they strive to raise awareness while implementing social distancing guidelines in communities where such behaviour may be difficult to entrench. But the work being done by Victoria and others is critical.
“My work is important to the community because it provides them with knowledge they need to deal with diseases they face,” said Victoria.
Since January 2019, UNICEF and partners disseminated Ebola prevention messages to more than three million people, including training more than 2,500 frontline mobilizers, like Victoria, to knock on doors, organize community meetings and engage religious and local leaders.
Yambio is one of the high risk areas due to its proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to the second worst Ebola outbreak recorded in history. South Sudan has also had three indigenous outbreaks of Ebola, they have all been in this part of the country- something some of the older community members still remember well.
“My work is important to the community because it provides them with knowledge they need to deal with diseases they face”
In the covered porch outside Reverend Tito Ringanza’s church, there are bright posters illustrating the symptoms caused by Ebola. The religious leader himself has a personal stake in ensuring his parishioners see this vital information.
“My mother died in 1976 from the Ebola virus. She was admitted to a hospital in Maridi. There was no preparedness or awareness at that time. The disease killed so many people, including medical staff. I am traumatized by Ebola because it killed my mother. That is why I spread awareness,” said Ringanza, who is the provincial secretary of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, a UNICEF implementing partner in Western Equatoria State, South Sudan.
Ringanza uses his sermons to spread information about Ebola, hygiene and disease prevention and now he hopes to create awareness on coronavirus disease.
“We want to preach to healthy people not the sick and dead. That is why we ensure that they are healthy by sharing health messages,” he said. “When mobilizing the community, you try to open people’s eyes so that they see how to make a change in their economic and social activities including education and health.”
With support from many partners, the Ministry of Health and UNICEF launched a nationwide risk communication campaign to educate people on how best to protect themselves against the Coronavirus.
More than 40 radio stations are broadcasting messages in 10 languages, while hundreds of thousands leaflets, banners and posters in seven languages are distributed across the country. These contain information on signs and symptoms, preventive measures and other resources. Digital channels, including social media, are used while essential information is also be disseminated through bulk SMS.
Another 3,000 megaphones and 150,000 pairs of batteries have been distributed to communities to help mobilizers deliver this vital information. The mobilizers have received training to prepare them for this task. To reduce the risk of transmission, community meetings will not be part of the communication efforts.
Joyce Innocent is among those leading the efforts. The 32-year-old has worked as a social mobilizer for three years and spends her days visiting homes to make sure everyone knows how to protect themselves from Ebola and other infectious diseases. It is tough, tiring work but she knows she is making a difference.
“The distance that I travel is very long. I have to walk all that way with heavy booklets. But despite the challenges, people are getting knowledge and that is what is important,” she said. “The work is very important because we are changing the lives of people in our community through knowledge-sharing.”
Now people are asking new questions.
“People are already looking for me to provide information about coronavirus to protect themselves,” Joyce said.