Tireless Hearts behind Covid-19 Response

Empowering Community Leaders as Credible Voices

UNICEF Sri Lanka
Hero photo
UNICEF Sri Lanka
28 January 2022

“My career is in sustainable development, but I also have another passion, which is Community Empowerment,” says twenty-nine-year-old Hasith Sandaruwan, who actively engages with his communities as a community leader in his home district of Gampaha. Hasith is also a member of the Youth Parliament, an initiative led by the National Youth Services Council. “There, we discussed ways of addressing the complex problems that we face as a society.” However, he had no inkling of the colossal challenge that the country, and indeed the world, would be forced to confront in the not-too-distant future.

Hasith lives in a neighborhood where the spread of COVID-19 was heavy: “More or less every home, including ours, had a person who was infected. People were reacting to those who fell ill and their families insensitively. We were feeling extremely vulnerable because we had to make some important decisions with limited information.”

In early 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults were mostly affected with the virus. However, by mid-2021, the situation had begun to change, with a significant increase of the cases of young people. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly evident that misconceptions and misinformation, amplified on online digital platforms where young people themselves are the most active, were undermining measures to control the spread of the pandemic.

“We found it difficult to access information we could trust – scientific information,” states Hasith, “The information we were receiving through social media wasn’t always accurate and reliable. Besides, some people, claiming to represent the health authorities, were making statements based on conjecture and superstition. We had no way of figuring out the reliability of information.”

Today, Hasith is actively working to get the right messages across – particularly to young people.  He is one of the 6,734 community leaders island wide who participated in a series of online trainings which was aimed to strengthen the knowledge, skills and practices of community leaders on COVID-19 related prevention and response measures. Intervention was implemented by UNICEF together with the civil society organization, Sarvodaya which is the most broadly embedded community-based development organization network in Sri Lanka, through the funding support received from the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) Appeal and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

The trainings, carried out in local languages, were based on Ministry of Health guidelines/resources, combined with technical expertise from UNICEF and Sarvodaya. The nature of the virus, key protective measures, vaccination, testing, responding to critical situations and the role of the community leaders in addressing the crisis were the main areas covered by the training. Hasith believes that most of the participants, including himself, experienced a significant learning curve: “We learnt how the virus is transmitted, how to control and minimize transmissions. We learnt about the isolation and treatment of patients.”

“Online training sessions enabled community leaders to interact directly with the Community Physicians of the Ministry of Health,” says Hasith. “The locations were carefully chosen so that people from areas most at risk would benefit, and each session had about 100-150 participants.  For example, my district, Gampaha, was the second most affected district in terms of the spread of the pandemic, so we were prioritized. About 550 people from Gampaha participated in the trainings. Despite being relatively well educated, people did not have a good comprehension of the nature of the virus and exactly how it was spreading.  They were also not adequately aware of preventive measures that needed to be taken. That was a big gap even the mainstream media hadn’t been able to fill.”

A crucial aspect of the discussion, Hasith believes, was tackling the misinformation and disinformation received by young people related to vaccination. “Young people were concerned if the vaccines could cause fertility-related problems. Most people wanted a certain kind of vaccination, which they felt was better, and were keen to wait until they could get it. But at the end of the day, we understood that what was important was getting vaccinated as early as possible.  We also learnt about building immunity and how our behaviour and practices can control the spread of Covid-19.”

Besides providing community leaders to clarify their doubts within the training sessions, the selected leaders representing all the districts were invited to join a mobile messaging group, which is used as an ongoing communication channel to provide trusted information. The trainers who were Community Physicians from the Ministry of Health were also part of this mobile messaging group. Community leaders, including Hasith, receive daily updated information, share community level situation updates and concerns, ask key questions they want to clarify from the trainers and receive immediate clarifications from the trainers. “I haven’t encountered a similar mobile messaging platform that provides authoritative information about Covid-19,” says Hasith. 

UNICEF, together with Sarvodaya, works to strengthen this network as a credible voice to reach out to the most vulnerable audience with the relevant, updated and credible information to promote protective practices in this new normal. “That was the whole point – sharing the knowledge we can access with as many people as possible,” says Hasith, emphasizing his role as a community leader.