A Well Organized Civil Society is The First Line of Defense Against COVID-19
As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the globe, thousands of Community Leaders have joined forces to soften its impact on millions of lives across Africa.
In this blog post, we’ll highlight how our pan-African network “RELAY” is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for last-mile villages and illiterate populations to share crucial information, helping communities navigate this pandemic, saving countless lives.
COVID-19 is more than a health hazard, as fighting the pandemic through social distancing, lockdowns and curfews have caused a global economic slowdown. People living at the base of the pyramid are particularly vulnerable to both of these maladies. It is difficult to respect lockdowns and curfews if it means you have to forego the income you rely on to feed your family, and with constraints on viable policies to flatten the COVID-19 curve, impoverished communities become more vulnerable to infection.
The RELAY Community Network is currently home to 10,521 community leaders representing 10,840,786 constituents from 28 Sub-Saharan African countries, and is growing by more than 15% month over month. The network has proved impactful in numerous ways well illustrated by how community leaders organized viable COVID-19 responses in challenging contexts.
The Relay Network as a Driver of Collective Action
Sub-Saharan communities are particularly vulnerable to unsubstantiated rumors, disinformation campaigns, and fake news. They primarily receive their news from poorly screened sources through social media, massive WhatsApp groups, and through talk radio. Unfortunately, the channels are filled with misinformation that hampers collective responses to issues, such as COVID-19. With a 32/100 score in the corruption perception index, Sub-Saharan African authorities offer little help as a trusted source in vital information campaigns. Instead, communities rely on existing tribal hierarchies to vet information and drive collective action.
To help stem the tide of untrusted and unverified news, we built RELAY based on existing tribal hierarchies and their inherent trust, and through a, by-invitation only, network of community leaders, where leaders screen each other before admitting new members, keenly upholding the integrity of the network. By being part of the powerful digital network, leaders efficiently coordinate responses across communities and are connected with scores of NGOs to receive the latest support and advice to serve their constituents.
Leaders Inspiring Action All Around Africa
Decisive action by community leaders and easy-to-scale efforts communicated through the RELAY network across Africa countries have been a vital part of combating COVID-19 in communities with limited resources.
In Postikum, Nigeria, Solomon Shehu Jatawa, a member of the RELAY Community Network, took action to slow the spread of COVID-19 through awareness and the distribution of hand washing facilities and locally made reusable facial masks. “The WHO’s protection guidelines against COVID-19 received from RELAY Community Network and collaboration with its other leaders across Africa inspired me to take action,” said Solomon. “If every community leader could stand up and join this fight, Africa would beat COVID-19.” Solomon used his own money to make hand-washing facilities from recycled 20-liter empty jerrycans, after he learned that a leader in Tanzania had implemented something similar in the Nyarugusu camp.
Similar to Solomon, Roger Musoka, a Congolese leader from Rutshuru town in D.R. Congo, looked to other leaders’ activities and innovations, and found inspiration in Tanzania and Nigeria. Musoka ensured that the people of Rutshuru town followed basic practices established by the WHO, by installing 15 self-funded hand-washing facilities at major roundabouts of the city center and bus-stops in the areas of Burayi, Kiringa, Kiwanja, Mbungungo, Nyongera, Kalengera & Marangara. “People don’t miss the opportunity to wash their hands and keep safe, especially when they encounter these facilities at strategic locations.”
More importantly still, these community leaders have also played a major role in making sure that their respective communities receive information that is relevant, verified, and very much real. Kananga is the capital city of the Kasai-Central Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its terrain and geographic location mean that almost half of its 1.2 million inhabitants have little or no access to electricity, which in turn slows down access to information. Five of the RELAY Community Network’s members in DRC — Etienne Tshisekedi Kabalwapa, Bernadette Mbombo, José Kalala, Sylvain Kabuanga, and Marcel Mulambwa — decided they should do something to alert their off-grid communities about COVID-19, and, more importantly, to alert against fake news.
They enlisted radio stations and shared reliable information in Tshiluba, their local language, to ensure minimum amounts of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The information conveyed was generated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and shared with them by the RELAY Community Network. The radio programs consisted of Q&A sessions to debunk myths related to the novel Coronavirus. When asked how they’ve managed to gain the trust of these local radio stations, Etienne Tshisekedi Kabalwapa said “People know us as “Les Envoyés de REFUNITE” (The REFUNITE Envoys). They know that we work for good and that makes it easier to assist our community”.
Battling fake news on social media has become part of the community struggle. Myths and misinformation spread through the platforms most commonly used. Martin Ben-Bala, part of the Congolese diaspora community and one of the leaders that integrate the RELAY Community Network in Bangui, the capital of CAR, tailored messages against COVID-19 fake news and alerted his people: “Do No Harm! Share only information from verified sources”. He believes that part of the role of community leaders in this pandemic is to stop the spread of misconceptions on if the virus is real or not, and how the virus is spread. “Debunking these myths (on COVID-19) is not only a matter of moral duty but also a security measure for me and my community”, he explains.
We Are Calling YOU
Multi-pronged approaches have been taken by these trusted leaders to survive the pandemic. But there is one clear message: A reliable communications network is an integral part of their support system. The network of leaders has used the RELAY communications network not only as a source for reliable information, but also as a way to gather inspiration and devise practical ways to combat COVID-19. The network allows for the continuous feedback of action and reaction that are based on real-time information gathering and sharing, resulting in the life-saving implementation of the relevant programs that can be customized to the community’s needs.
RELAY communications network calls to any organizations and/or individuals looking to support the growing network of trusted leaders that are currently saving lives. In this time of need, monetary aid is as impactful as always, but the sharing of information and knowledge has also become valuable tools that are as important for these leaders to have access to. Not only to empower their communities and move forward, but to protect vulnerable communities from this global pandemic which has already claimed too many lives and livelihoods.