Fighting COVID-19 with lessons from the past

How a refugee became a relief worker

Yves Willemot
Manasseh looking at the camera
24 June 2020

Having fled in fear from war as a child, thirty-nine-year-old Momo Manasseh has no intention of letting fear drive his life as an adult. He is part of a wave of South Sudanese who are pushing back against COVID-19. The organization he works for, 'The Rescue Initiative – South Sudan', a South Sudanese NGO, has been working with UNICEF since March to train social mobilizers and inform local communities about preventive measures to take to avoid infections.

Together with UNICEF, Momo’s organization has already trained 350 social mobilizers who inform local communities about COVID-19 through house-to-house visits, megaphone announcements and community awareness sessions. It also distributes information posters. Momo and his colleagues are experts, having worked with UNICEF on previous campaigns to encourage vaccinations and to prevent the spread of Ebola.

“With the support of UNICEF, we inform local communities about good practices in health such as vaccination. We trigger a demand from the local population to get the services they need in health, education, child protection, ... Programmes implemented by government or aid organizations can only be successful and sustainable if people are asking for it themselves.”

Mobilizers are educating people on COVID-19
Momo Manasseh (39) with social mobiliser mama Loice educating people in Kapuri on COVID-19

Momo knows the challenges that face those he speaks with. When he was six, he and his family were forced to walk for three days, from his home village of Sarego, in southern South Sudan, to Uganda. He then lived in a refugee camp for seventeen years before finally being able to come home. He remembers the impact communications had.

In the evening we gathered with a dozen refugee families around a small transit listen to ... the news about South Sudan."

The radio shows not only drew nightly crowds, but also cheers and a sense of community with those left behind. Now he is back home, he has a simple, vast goal to help rebuild his country.

For now, that means getting rid of COVID-19, by letting people know how they can protect themselves.

At the beginning people were not convinced about the messages Momo and his colleagues were sharing. There was a lot of disbelief. People believed that COVID-19 was only an issue for cold countries and that South Sudan would not be affected.

“Misinformation continues to be a challenge in the COVID-19 response. That is why we identify and try to refute false rumors circulating within communities. Through correct information, we also ensure that our social mobilizers and people infected by the virus are not stigmatized.”

A man helping a colleague mobilizer to wash her hands
Momo Manasseh (39) with social mobiliser mama Loice in the village of Kapuri, half an hour drive from Juba.

In South Sudan, UNICEF is working with many local non-governmental organizations like The Rescue Initiative – South Sudan on risk communication and community engagement around COVID-19. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 response, UNICEF and partners, have reached more than four million people in South Sudan with preventive protection measures.

Traveling to small villages, such as Kapuri, outside Juba, Momo's team, make sure to maintain social distance, teaching by example the basics on how to protect against coronavirus.

“Social mobilizers need to respect physical distancing at all times, which makes their work very challenging."

Momo is aware that the fight against COVID 19 will be a long-term mission.

However, Momo Manasseh is a man who grew up in a refugee camp, returning to his country an educated professional despite all the odds. He, and his colleagues, know both the difficulties of long struggles and the rewards of working to hold hope. 

UNICEF works in partnership with the World Bank and with the financial support of DFID, Japan and USAID on risk communication and community engagement on COVID-19.