Mobile health educator takes one village at a time

Step by step, he gives the technical information, backed with actual examples

By Joachim Buwembo
community mobilization, community sensitization drives, coronavirus, COVID-19, mobile vans, health education
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Kabuye
26 May 2020

Unusual challenges invite unusual solutions, and so it is with the Covid-19 pandemic. With ten years’ experience as a health educator, John Matovu Ssamula hadn’t encountered a more challenging season of sensitizing his fellow Ugandans. With the immediate response to the outbreak being a nationwide lock down, it is an elephantine task to reach the grassroots communities in a country where television is still a luxury; radio use though widespread is limited to a couple of hours a day due to the need to conserve batteries by the poor; and internet penetration is still a preserve of the elite.

But lives must be saved so the job had to be done, one way or another. John set out to do it.

The Ministry of Health supported by UNICEF had already prepared pre-recorded messages, which in a matter of life and death like Covid-19 are a must, as any slight misrepresentation, even in pronunciation, can make a fatal difference. Uganda is still a very oral society and instructions on which part of your face not to touch for example, what reagent constitutes an effective sanitizer or how to handle a facemask must be communicated accurately and without ambiguity.

community mobilization, community sensitization drives, coronavirus, COVID-19, mobile vans, health education
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Kabuye

Armed with the messages in the well-equipped ministry vehicle, John sets off with his driver, Didas, from Rubaga Division headquarters near the capital and thanks to near-zero traffic due to the lock down, they reach the first targeted spot less than half an hour after hitting the road. It is Kasubi, a small trading centre of local shops – actually kiosks but some built with concrete. He switches on the booming loudspeaker and attracts immediate attention of the people who put aside what they were doing, several standing in their shop doorways to listen. The official messages done with, John takes the microphone and with his engaging style, expounds on the anti-covid measures.

Besides explaining the basics and symptoms of Covid-19, John expands on the proper handwashing method, stressing the need for and adequacy of soap – any soap. He reminds the shopkeepers of the requirement to provide handwashing facilities for customers and enforce social distancing while serving them, failure to do which now constitutes an offence. He goes through all the presidential guidelines which have helped to drastically slow the spread of the coronavirus after the initial when some four dozen returnees from abroad were diagnosed positive, to the current situation when all new cases detected are mostly transit, log-distance truck drivers plying the regional routes. Uganda, though relatively small, has five international borders and now receives at least two thousand trucks daily from neighbouring countries. The number was double this before the pandemic struck.

community mobilization, community sensitization drives, coronavirus, COVID-19, mobile vans, health education
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Kabuye

The different localities have different characteristics and John quickly adjusts to the different groups he addresses. Another stop is a stop centre for motorbike taxis – boda bodas. The young cyclists are not busy since carrying passengers was banned and ferrying goods which they are allowed to do has not yet picked up fully. John plays popular music on the car’s booming sound system and he immediately has their undivided attention. When he gets down to talk to them, he first tackles the issue of face masks, which some of them are not wearing. Step by step, he gives the technical information, backed with actual examples suitable for their situation.

And back on the road, John heads to the next village, adjusting to the nature of the group that gathers to hear his message. How to gather people and yet ensure they do not get near to one another is something he had never envisioned but is getting used to. Village by village, he takes them on. For nearly a fortnight he has been at it, John’s morale keeps surging higher because of the visible results from his efforts. Passing through the ground he has already covered, the changes are obvious. There is absolutely no handshaking for example. Many people are wearing masks, mostly improvised as they wait for the ones promised by the government. And yes, social distancing – now called ‘tonsemberera’ which means ‘don’t get near me’ - is generally observed by all.