Combatting myths and misinformation at Sudan’s COVID-19 hotline call centre

These youth fought for their rights during the Sudanese revolution last year and are now fighting for the health and safety of all

Aaliyah Madyun and Layal Abdu
Two black men look at computer screen
UNICEF Sudan
30 June 2020

“If you can't do great things yet, do small things in a great way. I  am not sure if my actions daily in the call centre and all of the phone calls could be considered great. They are merely regular.  But I try, we all do, in those few minutes we have in each call to make a difference.” 

Amna Yasir Abbas Mohamed, 22

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes across the globe. In Sudan, it has presented extreme challenges and unique opportunities for regular people to make enormous contributions to their society. While the disease requires us to be further apart physically in many ways it has brought us closer together than ever. One example of this can be found at Sudan’s only COVID-19 hotline. Based in the capital city Khartoum the hotline is a free service provided by the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) with support from the private sector, UNICEF and other partners. The hotline is dedicated to spreading accurate information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and where to go for treatment. The hotline is a critical lifeline to those trying to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19 in Sudan.  The hotline is also a place where ordinary young people are doing extraordinary things for their community. 

Work with a higher purpose

Every day more than 90 volunteers come to work at the hotline which serves the entire country. The volunteers work in three shifts per day and receive calls from all corners of the country. “Most of the volunteers are young people ranging from undergraduate students, newly graduated and professionals. Their specialties are of different - health and medical field, medicine, dentistry, public health, pharmacy and medical laboratory, “ said Fatma Mohsin Hassan, 30, a supervisor at the hotline. 

“Every day I receive a phone call from someone who did not know about the Coronavirus. So, I think we are making a difference on a daily basis. We educate people about how we can reduce spreading the virus and by means saving lives,” Latifa Mamoun Elsheikh Mohamed, 24

Women in hijab wearing mask at call centre
UNICEF Sudan
Fatma Mohsin Hassan, 30, is a supervisor at the hotline. Since the establishment of the call centre, Fatma has seen the capacity increase, meaning that even more people are being helped.  

Since the establishment of the call centre, Fatma has seen the capacity increase, meaning that even more people are being helped.  “It started in the second half of March after the announcement of the first COVID-19 case.  The call centre started with a few volunteers using paper-based reporting system for all incoming calls.  The reporting was manual presenting the total numbers of calls, types of calls and segregated by states. After two weeks, the electronic system was ready and was able to capture all the essential data. By end of April and with the continuous increase in cases, the call load was high requiring the expansion of the operation, the call centre moved to the Zain call centre building where Zain telecommunication company hosts the FMoH operation resulting in the increased capacity of the call handling,” explained Fatma. 

Today the call centre receives and processes hundreds of calls per day. They are not only a lifeline to Sudanese citizens, but they provide an important referral mechanism to the FMoH. The information the volunteers provide allows possible COVID-19 cases to be identified, traced and treated.  One volunteer, a medical student, Amna Yasir Abbas Mohamed, 22, recalled how this process worked when she was able to help a caller who she believed should be tested and treated for COVID-19. “During my first shift, we were able to send an ambulance. Knowing the right thing to be done for the sake of others and being able to do it is everything. That’s the difference,” said Amna. 

Women in hijab wearing mask at a call centre
UNICEF/Sen K Productions
Amna Yasir Abbas Mohamed, 22, is one of the many young medical students who has volunteered their time at the call centre.

A call to serve others

“When I first heard about the special hotlines for the Coronavirus pandemic, I was inspired by the idea and I was sure that it would be of a great benefit especially to those in rural areas who have no access to media, by raising their awareness and also for all people to report their symptoms. So, I wanted to be part of this,” Latifa Mamoun Elsheikh Mohamed, 24.

All of the volunteers were motivated to participate because they cared deeply for their country and felt committed to sharing their knowledge to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Sudan. This is not the only thing they have in common, last year during country-wide calls for change and reform many young people became involved in a political protest movement. “Ever since last year, our great revolution, it was no longer a choice left for us to not be a part of anything related to this nation, we have a debt towards those who passed away for our sake, ”said Amna.  

During that time, Sudan saw large numbers of young people becoming politically active, joining resistance committees and becoming extremely vocal about the future they envisioned for their country. The same organization and commitment to public service developed during this time can be seen today at the call centre.  “The Revolution was a turning point, we are forever indebted for the sacrifices given for this country’s renaissance the price was too high, but we have to continue moving on. This is the least I could do as a medical student,” said Alaa Mustafa Ahmed Almardi, 22. 

Women in hijab wearing mask at call centre
UNICEF/Sen K Productions
Latifa Mamoun Elsheikh Mohamed, 24, speaks to a caller at the call centre. Sudan saw large numbers of young people becoming politically active, joining resistance committees and becoming extremely vocal about the future they envisioned for their country. The same organization and commitment to public service developed during this time can be seen today at the call centre.

Combatting myths and misinformation with facts

Many of the volunteers said their work is driven by the deep belief that every citizen in Sudan has a right to not only health but to information as well. “We get calls from all states of Sudan and the diversity of our country is very astonishing, our battle isn’t just against COVID-19, it is against ignorance and poverty too.  Some citizens don’t have the luxury to reach out for simple information and they are sadly very grateful for this simple effort that should’ve been their right,”Alaa Mustafa Ahmed Almardi, 22.

The volunteers strongly believe that access to information is a right and as a result, they took it upon themselves to counteract myths and misinformation. Some of the myths that volunteers commonly hear are that the COVID-19 can’t spread in Sudan due to the belief that hot weather kills the virus, the disease is a conspiracy by the Government to get foreign aid and that antibiotics can cure COVID-19. 

“Some people believe that Corona virus does not exist and it is something made up by the government, “ Latifa Mamoun Elsheikh Mohamed, 24

Man at a call centre
UNICEF Sudan
“It is my duty as a doctor to lift ignorance from our nation, try to change awareness and to correct misunderstandings," Abdallah Elgaili Abdaalla.

Volunteers stated that there are many reasons for the proliferation of these myths in society, including stigma, social norms, access to information and fear.  “The biggest misinformation about the disease that COVID-19 doesn’t exist in our country in addition to high stigmatization against the disease,” said Alaa. 

Fadlalbaseer Alamin Eltieb, 26, said that when countering misinformation, he tries to take into account the many reasons why someone might believe myths or have trouble accepting medical guidelines. For example, due to community customs and traditions, Fadlalbaseer says he knows it was hard for many people to change some habits such as participating in iftars, group meals, during Ramadan. 

Man at a call centre wearing a mask
UNICEF Sudan
Fadlalbaseer Alamin Eltieb, 26, said that when countering misinformation, he tries to take into account the many reasons why someone might believe myths or have trouble accepting medical guidelines.

While tackling stigma and misinformation is a constant battle for the volunteers, they are committed to doing all they can to change just even one life. “It is my duty as a doctor to lift ignorance from our nation, try to change awareness and to correct misunderstandings. I believe that the cure to ignorance will be through intellect, communication and psychological support. At this centre, the majority of people can benefit from our advice because it is reliable and coming from a fellow Sudanese human being that they can trust,” Abdallah Elgaili Abdaalla, 31. 

Even during dark and uncertain times, humanity always provides hope. The helpline volunteers are a shining example of how we can all join together to make our way towards a better future.