17 June 2020 – In such places as refugee camps where the availability of digital tools is limited, fighting rumours and myths about COVID-19 does not require sophisticated artificial intelligence. Refugees in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar use bicycles and loudspeakers to deliver accurate information door to door.
“I am so happy to play a role in my community by providing information around the camp during such a serious time,” said Mohammed Hasan, a Rohingya cyclist participating in the programme supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The United Nations agency says that the initiative conducted by Rohingya refugees, for Rohingya refugees, has already reached about 67,000 beneficiaries across the camp. As of 10 June 2020, 37 Rohingyas in one of the world’s largest refugee camps had tested positive for the coronavirus.
We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 26, 2020
Visit https://t.co/KNcR8hTHro to see how you can become a digital first responder and help stop the spread of misinformation on #COVID19. pic.twitter.com/uzP0fxwcln
Message content ranges from key COVID-19 information to general mental health and psychosocial support information, and is recorded in English, Rohingya and Bangla, with support from local organizations. The messages are stored on USB drives so that information may be easily adapted to varying conditions where restrictions limit vehicle movement throughout the camp.
The initiative also aims to reach the refugee population not covered by the agency’s earlier project, dubbed the ‘COVID Info Line’ – a system that uses pre-recorded information and messaging through phone networks to share critical information in the refugees’ local language across the camp.
COVID Info Line also allows users to record questions, comments and share concerns with IOM that may be replied to, holding IOM more accountable to beneficiaries.
As of 2 June, more than 26,000 individual users were registered and almost 20,000 messages were sent to IOM. With one user per family on average, this represents around 112,000 refugees receiving and sharing information with IOM. More than 235,000 calls have been made to beneficiaries utilizing 36 pre-approved messages.
While the service’s primary focus is creating an evidence-based information flow that is accessible to vulnerable people throughout the district, its capabilities and scope may extend beyond the pandemic response. Over 61,000 COVID Info Line users received Emergency Warning System messages in the days leading up to Cyclone Amphan.
Spreading the word across Africa
In Chad, IOM has recently partnered with local traditional town criers and troubadours to ensure that remote communities are informed about COVID-19 transmission and preventive measures.
Travelling with donkeys, horses or camels, troubadours spread local news in the landlocked Central African country, where more than 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas disconnected from radio and cell phone coverage, leaving them without critical COVID-19 information.
Over 80 troubadours identified through IOM networks in eight regions have been trained and equipped with key messages to share with communities in local languages.
“In various rural communities in Chad, town troubadours are seen as information custodians. As such, they can play an important role in disseminating key information in hard-to-reach areas,” said Anne Kathrin Schaefer, IOM Chad Chief of Mission.
A town crier marches through Baga-Sola on the shore of Lake Chad, a long caftan robe billowing in the dusty wind. Swinging matching megaphones he calls out to the dune-coloured structures.
“Town criers and troubadours are part of the life of this community,” he explained, adding: “Nothing happens here without me being informed and me informing others. Many women do not leave their houses during the day but when they hear me coming, they rush out to listen to me.”
To the south, in Angola, Roger, 43, has started a blog called Histoires de Lovua (French for ‘Stories from Lovua’), together with a team of 10 refugees, to share vital information about how to stay safe in the pandemic with fellow refugees in the Lovua settlement.
The blog is shared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and partners.
“We started this blog because we wanted the world to know about our daily lives as refugees in Angola,” he explains. “But we have a bigger responsibility now and that is to share very important information on the coronavirus.”
Roger is aware that without access to credible information in a timely and structured manner, panic and fear can ensue. He and his friends are determined to do their part in creating awareness in the Louva settlement housing some 6,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“More people are reading our blog because we are highlighting the measures in place to keep people safe,” explains Roger.
UN-wide campaign to fight misinformation
The United Nations is fighting misinformation on all fronts. It has launched ‘Verified’, an initiative to increase the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information by asking people to sign up to become “information volunteers”.
Led by the UN Department for Global Communications, the Verified initiative produces a daily feed of compelling, shareable content around three themes: science – to save lives; solidarity – to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions – to advocate support for impacted populations.
“COVID-19 is not just this century’s largest public health emergency, but also a communication crisis... We need to empower everyday people to spread factual trusted information with their friends, families and social networks,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming, at the launch of the campaign in May.