Grassroots COVID-19 campaign paves way for safe return to school in rural Zimbabwe

The BCFs and village health workers have become a vital cog in the push to encourage COVID-19 vaccine acceptance by fighting misinformation.

Kholwani Nyathi
girl washing hands
10 November 2021

Munyaradzi Makurumire, a teacher in Mashonaland West’s Hurungwe district, dreaded the day schools will re-open after one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the area.

Mashonaland West was one of the epicentres during the third wave that hit Zimbabwe from June to early August, forcing a two-month break in the school calendar.

Makurumire, a Grade 5 teacher at Finland Primary School, was fearful that his school’s proximity to settlements for illegal gold miners along Angwa River will expose them to COVID-19.

“Our students go to these settlements to sell wares to informal gold miners and during the third wave these areas, especially the Angwa River gold miners’ settlement, were COVID-19 hot spots,” he said.

“I was worried that as teachers we would be vulnerable.

“The stories about death and people that we knew falling sick due to COVID-19 were frightening.”

But to his surprise, when schools finally re-opened in early September it felt safer compared to the previous term and Makurumire attributed this to increased COVID-19 awareness among the pupils.

He believes extensive COVID-19 awareness programmes by the Apostolic Women’s Trust (AWET) and village health workers turned the tide in the fight against the pandemic in the largely farming community.

UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Dorothy Meki

AWET supported by UNICEF with funding from the Health Development Fund (UK Aid, EU, SIDA-Sweden, Irish Aid and GAVI), is using direct community engagement through behaviour change facilitators (BCFs) to complement the Ministry of Health and Child Care’s response to COVID-19 in 52 districts across Zimbabwe.

The BCFs and village health workers have become a vital cog in the push to encourage COVID-19 vaccine acceptance by fighting misinformation that was blamed for vaccine hesitancy in some communities in the early stages of Zimbabwe’s vaccination programme.

“The COVID-19 behaviour change programmes are certainly paying off here,” Makurumire said.

“Our learners learn from the background and our role here is to reinforce what they learnt from home.

“We see from the behaviour of the children that the message from AWET and the village health workers is getting to the parents and that makes us feel safe.

“They now take the World Health Organisation regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-9 very seriously to an extent that when they see one of their classmates without a mask, they take the initiative to alert the teacher.”

He said very few children were turning up for class without masks compared to the previous term.

Priscillah Musa, a village health worker around the Finland Primary School catchment area, said she was seeing a huge shift in the community’s attitude towards COVID-19.

Musa said initially villagers were hostile when they carried out door to door awareness campaigns.

Some shut them out of their homes as the misinformation had created a lot of myths about COVID-19.

“When we started the awareness programmes in January it was very tough because people did not believe that there was COVID-19 and the situation was worsened by misinformation and rumours  that are spread through social media,” she said.

“As we moved door to door, at some homesteads they would close their doors as we approach their homes, saying we were the ones spreading COVID-19, but we did not give up.

“We are still on the ground raising awareness, countering harmful misinformation, and this has opened people’s eyes as shown by the high turnouts at vaccination centres.”

Musa said in a day they can walk about 10 kilometres educating the community about the pandemic and they were encouraged to do more by the community acceptance and changing behaviours.

Lloyd Sunday, an AWET BCF in the area, said what made their work much easier was that they were imbedded in the villages.

“We try as much as possible to answer questions about COVID-19 when we interact with the community because a lot of people have been fed the wrong information about vaccines through social media,” he said.

“There were also parents that were reluctant to send their children back to school when the new term started after the high number of deaths in Hurungwe during the third wave, but we are now seeing that most children have returned to school.”

Makurumire said the majority of pupils at Finland Primary School, which has an enrolment of 490, were back at school.

Morgan Hofisi, the Finland village headman, also commended the  the BCFs and village health workers for educating the community about the pandemic and raising demand for the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Our district was badly affected by the third wave as we lost a lot of relatives and friends,” Hofisi said.

“Thanks to the BCFs and village health workers, a lot of our people are getting the message on vaccine benefits.

“We have moved to a point that at our meetings we are asking for vaccination cards because we believe that the vaccination programme has covered a lot of people.

“At gatherings such as funerals, our BCFs and village health workers constantly remind people to observe the health regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19 such as social distancing, regularly washing hands and wearing masks all the time.”

He added: “I am also happy that our children are back at school because the long break meant that they became idle and we were worried about girls falling pregnant and boys starting to abuse alcohol and other substances.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted learning across the globe and increased social vulnerabilities that include long term dropouts, abuse, child marriages and poverty.

Sustaining community engagement efforts for behaviour change plays a central role in addressing the aftermath of the pandemic.