When the coronavirus pandemic reached Nigeria, Sightsavers and partners – who were already working with the Nigerian government to tackle neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) through the Ascend West and Central Africa programme – were encouraged by programme donor UK aid to temporarily redirect the resources, staff, systems and expertise in place to support the country’s emergency response. And we rose to the request.
Working in Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto, where coronavirus cases were high and misinformation rampant, Ascend supported state health ministries to devise a COVID-19 communication campaign that would resonate with communities – around five million people in total.
This meant designing television adverts, radio jingles, social media content, billboards, posters and flyers that would strike a chord with community members. It also meant using these materials to train community health workers and volunteers to help raise awareness. In addition, we engaged with influential community figures, such as religious and traditional leaders, to ensure messages were trusted. This helped to ensure that people from the communities that needed to be reached were at the centre of the activities.
“Whatever intervention you want to do, you have to involve or engage fully in community participation,” says Shehu Dado, deputy state health educator at the Kano State Ministry of Health. “You cannot stay at the office and design everything. No, no, no; we have to engage the community. Whenever you work with them you get knowledge, and you achieve whatever you want to achieve.
“You have to be dynamic and you have to be flexible. Through talking with them [community members], I learned people didn’t understand what COVID-19 was… They heard such-and-such information from social media and… this is the reason they were non-compliant.”
The Ascend West and Central Africa programme aims to protect millions of people in 13 countries from neglected tropical diseases.About the programme
The campaign’s success was down to ensuring that key community figures, who other people trust and respect, were on board with the campaign. Many of these relationships were already in place or in motion as part of work to control NTDs, which enabled things to move quickly.
“We went to the communities, engaged district heads, village heads and the other bodies… we leveraged every structure to increase awareness to the general community,” says Shehu. “Because, if there is no social mobilisation in the community there is no awareness.
“[But] you cannot bring anybody on board. You have to bring somebody who is [an] influencer, well known in the state, well known on the issue. So whenever that man is talking, people will listen to him.
“There are religious clerics, mallams [learned/wise person]: we have them. And we have traditional rulers. Because each one has its own role in the issue of influencing communities to accept whatever intervention you design… You have to select the right influencer who can talk to people.”
Understanding the perspective of communities was also crucial to getting campaign materials right.
“Behaviour change materials have to be very, very sound,” says Shehu. “You have to make sure the culture and the issue of religion [are considered]. You have to look at it very clearly before it is shared so people will easily accept it… and can easily read.
“When we produce materials, we do an English version and a version in the native language, Hausa. There are those who are using [other languages] so we produce those versions too because we want everybody to know the prevention measures.”
Latifat Dan-Azumi, a health worker from the Tsurutawa community in Durbunde ward in Takai, Kano state, understands the importance of community trust all too well.
Latifat normally works as a community drug distributor, where she ensures people in her community receive NTD medication during mass treatment campaigns. She says her position in the community means people are willing to listen to her about COVID-19.
“I won’t say I encountered many challenges because most of the community members know me as a health worker, so they were always welcoming to my messages,” Latifat says.
“I protect myself by always using the face mask, maintaining social distance and demonstrating proper hand washing, and I use the hand sanitiser as I move from household to household. I will say the community behaviour has improved because of the awareness programme… coronavirus affected this community greatly.”
Musa Uba, a farmer and trader who is also from Durbunde, says he got involved with the COVID-19 awareness campaign to benefit his community. He was already volunteering as a community town announcer: someone who broadcasts public health messages, which put him in the perfect position to help when COVID-19 emerged.
He says: “Through our megaphones we sensitise the public from street to street and from community to community… Everything about the virus and how to avoid it is spelled out in the recorded message that I play through the megaphone and people are listening.
“So far so good – the work is successful because people are listening to the audio jingles I play all the time… children even follow me around sometimes and sing the tunes.
“I think it’s my responsibility as a town announcer to partake in such awareness exercises.”