From Ebola to COVID-19: Arming frontline workers with truth

Posted on 09/04/2020

Six months ago, Grameen Foundation published a blog about our work battling the spread of Ebola in Rwanda. Rumors, lies, conspiracy theories and mistrust in the government had contributed to rampant spread of the virus in the nearby Congo, leading to 2,299 deaths. Our job was to help keep the same from happening in Rwanda.

To many readers of that blog, the very idea that there are those willing to endanger lives by propagating lies about a deadly disease may have seemed outlandish. “That would never happen in the U.S.,” some may have thought.

Six months and one worldwide pandemic later, we are reminded – never say never. As COVID-19 spread across the world, misinformation spread with it. In the United States, our president has disseminated false information and debunked cures, and our health officials have been threatened by conspiracy theorists. At this writing, there have been 180,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S.

So, when I tell supporters today that we are building on Grameen’s Ebola efforts to educate residents in Rwanda and Sierra Leone about COVID-19, they have a whole new appreciation for the urgency of our work – because they have seen firsthand the deadly consequences of unimpeded misinformation.

The big advantage we have in Rwanda and Sierra Leone are the networks of Community Health Workers (CHWs). Like other Grameen Community Agents, these local health workers are trusted and respected in their communities. Messages from government and healthcare professionals often are not.

With support of Johnson & Johnson, along with the Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, Grameen Foundation is training 55,000 CHWs in Rwanda to quickly provide their neighbors with crucial information about COVID-19 prevention. World Vision International is supporting a similar undertaking in Sierra Leone where we are training 6,000 CHW’s.

Experience is our other advantage. In our war on Ebola, we applied Grameen’s MOTS (Mobile Training and Support) service to train Community Health Workers. The remote CHWs were most successful when they were able to access training modules on their own mobile phones, on their own schedules and in their own languages. Applying those key takeaways in our new fight against COVID-19 has given us a home field advantage. In Sierra Leone, for instance, we knew from the beginning that we had to be prepared to train our 6,000 CHW’s in 10 different languages.

We also learned the importance of providing support for the mental health of both the health care worker and the community. Just as we found with Ebola, we recognized the mental health of many people suffers during these types of pandemics. Not only do those that may unfortunately get the disease suffer from stigmatization, but family members, care givers and even health professionals can find themselves overwhelmed as well. Grameen partnered with J&J to come up with a mental health module that will help provide tips that can be a lifeline for those dealing with mental hardships during this pandemic.

Another key takeaway is the importance of valuing and validating the efforts of CHWs who risk their lives to disseminate information in their communities. In the U.S., we buy dinners for hospital workers, honor our frontline workers with signs in our yards and ribbons in our trees, and go out of our way to thank mail carriers and grocery workers.

CHWs deserve this same kind of recognition, even if delivered on their phones as part of COVID-19 training. And the people of Rwanda and Sierra Leone deserve truthful information to protect themselves and their communities from yet another deadly epidemic. We at Grameen feel privileged to be a part of delivering both.

Monica Amponsah is Regional Program Manager – EBODAC, Grameen Foundation

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