“We don’t wear masks not because we don’t want to, but because we cannot afford to buy them.”
For Haja Marie Kondeh, president of the influential Freetown Market women’s association in Sierra Leone, receiving around 1,000 cloth masks for distribution among the most vulnerable market women was a godsend. Locally made masks cost up to a dollar, which is more than most of the women traders can afford.
The masks were part of a 52,000-batch procured by UNDP as part of a mass awareness campaign on COVID-19 prevention measures, ‘Corona fet na wi all fet’. Meaning, in Krio language, “The fight against COVID-19 will be won with solidarity,” the campaign aims to promote behaviour change and to encourage safe public health measures.
“In such unprecedented [times], there are two essential things we can do– support the health care system to address and cope with cases, and enhance risk communication and community engagement to help slow and reduce the spread of the disease,” said Dr. Samuel Doe, UNDP’s Resident Representative in Sierra Leone.
The government declared face masks mandatory in public areas in early May. UNDP helped campaign design and procure more than 5,000 posters, 800 placards, 27 banners, 300 megaphones and batteries, and public address systems.
A community-led campaign
To help enforce the use of face masks and social distancing practices, the campaign used a community-led approach by reaching out to influencers groups and individuals like Haja or George Wyndham, a renowned Paralympic medallist.
“The pandemic stopped me from doing what I love most — sports. It stopped me from earning an income to take care of myself and my family. [Now] I am using my influence in a good way for my country and myself,” he says.
George is especially concerned by the plight of youth in Sierra Leone during the pandemic. “I know what it was like for them during the war and then Ebola. With COVID-19, and the poverty worsened by this disease, we have been experiencing some violence in some places, but we must bear up, stay strong, stick together, hope and work for the best, that is my message to them”.
“We want to emerge from the other side of this fight stronger and walk into a brighter future,” says Wahid, a young Sierra Leonean artist known for his advocacy work on peace and development.
Wahid and other musicians across the country championed the campaign by creating and performed a national theme song to bolster the fight against COVID-19. Sang in the various languages spoken in the country, the song encourages solidarity and emphasizes the need for unity and social cohesion.
“The country loves these young men and women. The idea was just right to have them join and lead the fight,” says Solomon Jamiru, national spokesperson for the COVID-19 response in Sierra Leone, and also the brains behind the concept of the song.
UNDP’s support was both technical — with the development of a social mobilization and community engagement strategy for the rapid roll-out of the campaign -, and financial, with US$253,000 re-directed from programmatic budgets funded by the organization’s core resources.
The ‘Corona Fighters’
These financial resources also helped recruit the ‘Corona Fighters’, around 1,000 community volunteers who were rapidly trained in risk communication and community engagement. Most of them had already participated in the Stop Ebola campaign in 2014–2016. Trainings were organized by National COVID-19 Emergency Response Center and approved and implemented by the WHO, alongside the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.\
“I got a message on my phone that I had received some money for my first week of community volunteering. Honestly, I was not expecting payment, I knew I was doing it for my country. But this [allowance] will take our family a long way, things are very difficult for us right now with COVID,” says Samuel Mattia, a community radio anchor who volunteered to educate communities in the Western Area Rural, after violent riots against national security forces erupted following national lockdowns.
The initiative helped reach close to 16,000 people in businesses, and in households and communities who, for the most part had not adhered to the prevention measures, either due to denial, affordability, or lack of water and soap for handwashing.
“I could not choose to buy a mask over food for my family,” said Fatmata Kamara, a Market Woman in Kroobay, Freetown.
Story and photos by UNDP Sierra Leone/Helen Mayelle