In West and Central Africa, the spread of COVID-19 has been accompanied by a contagion of misinformation, creating fear and uncertainty among certain communities.
In a region where an estimated 252 million people are unconnected to the internet, risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) is essential to ensure that those living in areas with limited access to digital information channels, are informed and empowered to protect themselves and their loved ones.
As the number of COVID-19 cases increases to more than 22,000 in Africa, and in the light of the rapid spread of such myths, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is stepping up its RCCE efforts to support over 20 countries in their response to the pandemic. So far, no COVID-19 cases have been reported in camps or camp-like settings in the region. Nonetheless, an estimated five million migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are at a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to overcrowding, which makes social distancing measures difficult to implement. Many have limited access to social and healthcare services.
For those reasons, and more, IOM has been holding outreach sessions in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali to inform displaced persons as well as migrants in transit of the disease’s risks and its prevention methods.
“We are seeing the rapid spread of myths on the origin of the virus, for instance, which sometimes slows access to affected communities. That can have potentially disastrous consequences,” explained Dr Viviane Nzeusseu, IOM Regional Migration Health Specialist for West and Central Africa.
Additionally, fear and anxiety can lead to social stigma from both real and perceived risks of infection. Through community engagement sessions, communities are reminded of the importance of privacy and of not reinforcing hurtful stereotypes concerning the origin and transmission of the virus.
Across Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone this month, over 240 migrant returnees joined efforts to fight the pandemic, by producing and disseminating awareness-raising videos, songs, comic strips and photo campaigns on hygiene measures and supporting the #StayHome challenge.
In Chad, dozens of town criers and troubadours who have been trained in hygiene and COVID-19 prevention awareness, were equipped and deployed in rural communities “disconnected” from cell phone and radio coverage. Through this unique approach, IOM has been able to provide life-saving information as well as hygiene kits to displaced populations in Chad’s Lake Region. That area currently has been declared a “war zone” in response to the conflict with non-state armed groups in the region.
IOM, through the Dakar Regional Office, contributes its expertise to the West and Central Africa COVID-19 regional response through the launch of www.CoronaWestAfrica.info, a joint platform for community engagement in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the region.
Hundreds of information, communication and education materials in local languages from across the region and for all target audiences – including migrants in transit, and vulnerable migrants – have been developed to support IOM and UN country teams.