The Secret Weapon to Stop Coronavirus

IsraAID's team in Vanuatu share hygiene awareness posters to combat COVID-19. (courtesy)

We see it every time we unlock our phones. As people all over the world follow the spread of coronavirus – and the pandemic becomes the story of our time — we are being overloaded with information and not all of it is accurate. COVID-19 has been dubbed not just a pandemic, but an infodemic too. The quantity of information and content being put out about coronavirus doesn’t just make it hard to keep up with the disease’s spread, it makes it hard to separate fact from fiction, useful guidance from misleading falsehoods.

As an international aid organization, IsraAID’s 14 global missions aren’t just contending with how to keep delivering our vital services at a time when person-to-person contact is limited. We are also trying to combat the infodemic that makes controlling the pandemic that much harder.

This may seem like a tall order, but the good news is that we have a secret weapon that can help: community.

At IsraAID, we work in partnership with local communities around the world. We never seek to impose “our” ideas on the people we support. We want to work together to bring the extra resources communities need to build long-term resilience. In a time of coronavirus, this means strengthening each community’s capacity to anticipate, mitigate, and recover from the risks and effects of the pandemic.

Just as we would in any situation, our teams are engaging with the communities they work with to bring the added value they can under the current circumstances. Right now, around the world, we are focusing on promoting hygiene practices and providing health information that we hope will help control the virus. When I led IsraAID’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia, community education was the best tool we had for stopping the spread of the disease – way before any vaccine could be developed and brought to market. Crucially, this must be done in a culturally sensitive way and delivered by local leaders who are trusted by the community.

In many of these communities, access to credible information sources – whether through the internet, newspapers, or even radio – is limited, meaning that unchecked inaccurate messages can spread quickly. Part of our commitment to the people we work with is a commitment to keep them informed, so they can better protect themselves.

In Vanuatu, the Pacific archipelago where communities face widespread challenges accessing safe water and other services, IsraAID’s team has joined the Ministry of Health’s Risk Communication Group and are preparing information materials to raise public awareness of coronavirus and how to reduce the spread. Vanuatu has yet to report one confirmed COVID-19 case, but the risks are great and communities – spread across 83 largely small and rural islands – need to receive accurate information and hygiene recommendations as quickly as possible.

One of IsraAID Guatemala’s coronavirus information leaflets

In Escuintla, Guatemala, where many are still recovering from the 2018 Volcán de Fuego eruption, IsraAID’s team is distributing cleaning and hygiene products to people who are otherwise unable to access them. At the same time, they are taking the opportunity to share hygiene promotion materials and create kits with activities and suggestions to help vulnerable caregivers, including single mothers, manage through the shutdowns.

In Uganda, our Child Friendly Spaces in Palorinya refugee settlement in Uganda are temporarily closed while large gatherings are impossible. Before the full lockdown was imposed, our teams printed leaflets with important hygiene and health information in three different languages and distributed them to households in the community. Now they are launching a texting campaign and hotline to answer people’s urgent questions. This way, they will reach as many people as possible with key messages that they otherwise might never have heard.

I could bring a different case study from each of our missions across the globe, but the focus is the same: promoting community resilience in the face of both the virus itself and the associated viral spread of sometimes-inaccurate information.

It’s important to recognize that, at a time like this, communities can also be part of the problem and actually encourage the spread of disease. That’s why, next week, so many Jewish people in Israel and around the world will be celebrating the festival of Pesach with our extended family over Zoom instead of piling into a single room. But communities can also be the key to turning potentially harmful trends like the spread of false or dangerous information into opportunities for growth and resilience.

As we approach Pesach, perhaps the ultimate celebration of community resilience in the face of crisis and adversity, I’ll be thinking about all of the places IsraAID works and everything our teams are doing to build stronger, better informed communities in the face of global crisis.

So please, wherever you are, wash your hands, stay safe, and make sure that the information you’re sharing with your community is accurate and promotes good hygiene and health practices.

Chag Sameach!

About the Author
Yotam Polizer is the CEO of IsraAID – Israel’s biggest humanitarian NGO currently active in 18 countries including the recent disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico, Dominica, Mexico and California. Following the September 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, he led IsraAID’s humanitarian mission in Lesbos, Greece, to support Syrian refugees on the island and also established IsraAID Germany, which provides long-term support for Yazidi and Syrian refugees in Germany. During the last 10 years, Polizer has also built and led humanitarian aid programs in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in South Korea to support the reintegration of North Korean defectors. He has also led missions in Nepal following the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and in Sierra Leone for Ebola survivors, health workers, and affected communities. He has more than 10 years’ experience in education, humanitarian aid, and international development
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