By Joseph Ki-Zerbo, IOM Liberia
“It was all panic at first but, as we began to speak with them, the fear went away.”
On 8 April, Liberia declared a state of emergency after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, quarantining 15 counties and imposing nation-wide curfew at 3pm. Despite these measures, cases of the virus have continued to increase, with 1221 confirmed cases, 78 deaths and 705 recovered at the beginning of August.
To contribute to the fight against the pandemic, a group of 12 volunteers has been visiting communities to share vital information on how to prevent the spread of the virus. These volunteers are trained by a large-scape initiative led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Migrants as Messengers programme. Through this programme, returnees use peer-to-peer messaging to raise awareness among communities of irregular migration and its risks and to promote safe migration.
When the pandemic reached West Africa, MaM volunteers, numbering more than 250 returnees spanning seven countries (Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone) in West Africa, joined efforts to tackle the spread of the virus and provide preventative information to protect communities.
After attending COVID-19 prevention awareness raising sessions, the volunteers took to the streets of Monrovia to share preventive messages about the virus, such as wearing face masks, watching your hands regularly and maintaining social distancing, with community members door-to-door and by encouraging bigger group discussions. In May, the volunteers organized four events and were able to reach over 10 different communities.
Two of the Migrants as Messengers volunteers share their experiences of distributing information in the pandemic:
Sharon P. Logan, from Logan town, Rivercess county, Liberia.
Richard Daddy Shasha, from Caldwell, Montserrado county, Liberia.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your everyday life?
Sharon: My life has now changed. I am more precautious. During the pandemic, I did not see my mother. I did not visit my friends. I did not go to church. I avoided large gatherings, shaking hands and washed my hands constantly to remain safe.
Richard: Basically, the virus has had both positive and negative impacts on my life. I will start with the positive. I used to be a weak reader. Since the COVID-19, I take time to go through books. For the negative aspect, I used to go to church, but I no longer can, because I need to respect social distancing.
What have you observed in your community since the pandemic started?
Sharon: I observed that my community is no longer what it used to be. There are no social activities. Everyone is at home trying to follow recommendations from health authorities.
Richard: when people first heard about COVID-19, they began to panic. But then, with the information that health authorities shared on the virus and preventive measures, people began to comply with the health protocol.
Why are you raising awareness of the virus?
Sharon: Well, to give hope to my community that after the pandemic they will be able to go to work, to see their family and go on with their normal businesses.
Richard: As for me, I believed that the door-to-door campaign would be better. For example, when you go to a house during the lockdown you don’t just talk to one person. You talk to a a whole family, basically four or five people. That awareness raising has an impact. Moreover, for our country everybody relies on the government and it is not about the government. Together, we can make a difference in our community. So COVID-19 is everybody’s business, not the responsibility of one institution or one person.
What sort of information do you share?
Sharon: I tell people about preventive measures such as social distancing, handwashing, wearing continuously a face mask, and avoiding large gathering.
Richard: We always tell people that they should wash their hands constantly, observe social distancing, etc. We also go around and try to break stereotypes about COVID-19.
How did people react?
Sharon: Well they seemed to listen, some of them took my advice, and some of them said that they will wash their hands and wear their mask at all time.
Richard: It was all panic at first but as we began to speak with them the fear went away.
What stood out for doing this?
Sharon: I felt happy that I was able to talk to people and I was able to save lives.
Richard: Seeing the community members and seeing my peers being able to comply with measures. At first it was hard but when you see people interested in what you say, you just want to do more and keep doing more.
To support the volunteers’ activities, Migrant as Messengers issued visual information with prevention tips against COVID-19 that can be placed on motorcycles, taxis, in markets or distributed to people directly. These visuals can be found here.
Sharon P. Logan, 28, is a member of the Bassa tribe. An entrepreneur and an actress, she joined the programme after returning to Liberia in 2018 with the assistance of IOM in Mali. She attempted to reach Egypt in 2016 to work. After traveling through Guinea and reaching Bamako in Mali, she decided to return to Liberia after facing many hardships while trying to cross the desert. She recently participated in the creation of comic strips designed to provide preventative information on COVID-19 to communities facing language, technology and literacy barriers (link to article).
Richard Daddy Shasha, 27, is part of the Kpelle tribe. He attempted the irregular journey to Europe in 2016 after graduating in Architectural & General Building Construction from the Booker Washington institute. Having gone through numerous harsh experiences and false promises, he decided to return to Liberia in 2018, where he became a Volunteer for the MaM programme.