Unheard Heroes of the Pandemic

Reaching out to the most vulnerable communities through public address systems and mobile units to promote protective practices

UNICEF Sri Lanka
Hero imagine
UNICEF Sri Lanka
28 January 2022

“Here I am, where I’ve always wanted to be – working in the field where I want to make a difference. I started my career in Colombo – the capital of the country, and then moved to Anuradhapura, one of the most disadvantaged districts in the country” says Eranda Subasinghe, the Anuradhapura District Coordinator of Sarvodaya, the most broadly embedded community-based development organization network in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is one of the civil society organizations that works together with UNICEF Sri Lanka to implement the COVID-19 Risk Communication and Community Engagement interventions during these challenging times.

In mid-2021 and later, with waves of new COVID-19 variants crashing on Sri Lanka, COVID-19 Risk Communication became even more critical. Parallel to COVID-19 Risk Communication interventions conducted through the mass media and social media platforms, public address systems and mobile units with screens were used to reach out to the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.  “We focused our attention on areas that were the most vulnerable, that were, unsurprisingly, already marginalized,” says Eranda, “One of the biggest barriers to people’s development is the lack of correct information at the correct time. With the COVID-19 emergency, knowledge sharing became a matter of survival.

Eranda led the Risk Communication and Community Engagement interventions in the Anuradhapura district with his energetic team, who had the same sense of urgency. “This was the time that we were finding out that the spread of COVID-19 was gaining momentum in rural areas. It had become controlled to a certain level in the urban areas because people were more aware, they were wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing etc. There seemed to have been some deficiencies in the previous messaging and other efforts to contain the pandemic in rural areas. The virus was spreading very fast in the areas that had been neglected, the areas that we were targeting.”

Risk Communication messages were developed by the Health Promotion Bureau, UNICEF and Sarvodaya in Sinhala and Tamil, the local languages. Public health staff and local administrative officers became part of the team to both identify the most vulnerable communities and to roll out the messages. “The messages we shared were crafted with care.  They were clear, succinct, and easily comprehensible. To convey the information, we wanted to get as close to the people as we safely could, people with little access and exposure to traditional and digital media,” says Eranda. “When we shared the information visually through the screens of mobile units, we had to take extra precautions to minimize gathering and to ensure physical distancing, for example, in spaces like vaccination centres.  When we had to travel on narrow and rundown roads, we took the three-wheelers.” 

Most of the locations targeted were beyond the urban precincts, but Eranda points out that there were a few exceptions. “We identified an urban neighbourhood inhabited almost entirely by families whose breadwinners were employed by the urban council as sanitation workers. They were an overlooked community, ostracized as drug users and dealers, with low levels of education.  We were able to reach these people. We observed the poor and congested living conditions, noticed how much at risk these people and their children were. We realized that they needed to hear the messages we were sharing more than once and regularly. We made that possible.”

The team also visited a remote village whose economy depended to a large extent on a single livelihood – the production and sale of illicit alcohol.  “Here, we could see many people without masks. They slowly came out of hiding when we started sharing the messages. They were taken aback because we were not what they expected. They had expected a police raid. They were welcoming the information that they received and I’m sure these are the communities that are missed in regular Risk Communication.”

The team had to address not just the lack of information but also the misinformation regarding the pandemic. There was a level of uncertainty among people about the virus as well as ways to deal with it, including the uptake of vaccines. “Some people started following us on bicycles and motorbikes. They wanted more information and needed to clarify their doubts – which we were able to do. And because most of the village kades (small shops), where information is usually exchanged, were closed, people were feeling even more isolated, uncertain and insecure.”

Eranda is one of the many field officers of civil society organizations that enabled the UNICEF-led Risk Communication and Community Engagements to reach the communities most at risk. During the pandemic, UNICEF Sri Lanka reached to over 10 million people across all the provinces of the country, to promote protective practices through public address systems, mobile units with screens and LED screens, with the support of many donors including Facebook, World Bank and Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) Appeal.

When Eranda reflects about his work, he often uses the term ‘responsibility’. He acknowledges the responsibility he has towards his wife and one-year-old child to keep himself and the family safe, along with his responsibility towards the larger community to keep them safe. “It’s a matter of acting with responsibility.  There was a little fear at first, I must admit, because then COVID-19 was an unknown subject. But we believe in what we do.  We take all the possible precautions. As an active humanitarian worker, as much as I have a responsibility towards me and my family, I have a responsibility towards society to promote protective practices in the communities thar are the most susceptible to the pandemic.”