Randa El Ozeir: A group of people on the street flinched showing signs of apprehension and repulsion. They are Yemenis living in a remote area where volunteers, from the Yemen Red Crescent Society (YRCS) in their protective masks, put informative posters as part of a comprehensive awareness campaign about COVID-19. The group of people was scared to contract the “disease” from these masked individuals. Little by little, the group of people bombarded the volunteers with questions, and their eyes brightened with an “aha moment!” when they learned the answers.
Once again, it becomes clear how local actors and volunteers play an invaluable role in communities they know like the back of their hands. They speak the language, are familiar with the traditions, and recognize the prevailing mindset. Zamzam Saleh Saed Jaeem, the Deputy Communications manager in YRC’s Dhamar Branch, said, “There were rumors that made some people flinch when they saw us wearing masks, as if we were sick and contagious! But we stood our ground and persevered in identifying for them the wrong practices and correcting their misinformation, so they ended up helping us to put up the posters!”.
In Yemen, a country affected by war for over five years, the YRCS has been one of the few humanitarian organizations to freely continue executing its activities and missions all over the country doing what they most excel at: humanitarian support for communities affected by conflict and natural disasters, medical services especially for women and children, nutrition aids, prevention campaigns to tackle the risks of diseases as cholera and malaria, and lately, societal awareness through field campaigns around the country’s 22 governorates to stave off the dangers of COVID-19. These campaigns are implemented by the Heads of Communications in the YRC’s Branches, accompanied by the ambulance drivers and 44 volunteers, through posters and by playing recorded messages with preventive measures.
Nisrine Ahmed, the YRC’s Media Officer, said, “Before setting out to implement an activity, a coordination with all authorities in the country has to be done to commence a field awareness campaign directly with the people as to bridge the gap in all rugged locations. The geographical nature, ranging from mountains to deserts, coasts, and frontiers, has been aggravated by the poor phone and internet coverage and the unreliable electricity and made these places unattainable. Ultimately, the coordination to carry out the activity becomes centralized with the local authority at the governorate level”.
In an innovative way revealing a deep understanding of the local environment, the YRCS worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross to produce audio flashes containing simplified awareness messages people can incorporate into their daily lives to smoothly change their behaviours. Some of these messages promote “using hand sanitizers”, “protecting your own food during COVID-19”, “how to keep yourself and your family safe”, “how to protect yourself and others”, “what to do when you start having symptoms”, and “when to wear a mask”.
Nisrine Ahmed explained how the messages are being delivered via portable loudspeakers on ambulances that roam the districts and neighbourhoods of secluded areas within each governorate. “We are distributing in 10 communities the flyers and posters consisting of crucial info about COVID-19, its transmission, and the ways to prevent it”.
The YRC focuses on 440 areas across Yemen but does not go door-to-door. The awareness messages are broadcasted on loudspeakers and disseminated by posters. Only when faced with specific inquires, the Heads of Communications in the YRC’s Branches explain the content about COVID-19 face-to-face. “Those volunteers train yearly on communication skills, community activities, and media on the ground to perform their communication duties within the Branches, but also they have been trained by health staff on COVID prevention and on frequently asked questions. They are competent enough to spread awareness, achieve media documentation, and do live interviews. We carry these awareness campaigns in coordination with the Danish Red Cross (DRC), the German Red Cross (GRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRD), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)”.
“While they need the bare necessities for a normal life, it’s hard to ask people to stay home and stick to the recommended safety measures to prevent COVID-19”, said Jaeem adding, “people don’t have money to buy a mask or gloves to use when they go outside. We encountered a tuned-out society when we first started. We were met with obstacles to persuade the population and change their ideas about the virus. We raised the level of awareness among people and helped them. And we consider this to be an accomplishment in and of itself”.
“As usual, we see the YRCS present and giving the most important info that helped us to correct some of the misconceptions about COVID-19. Our situation is dire, and we need protective equipment that we cannot buy. We don’t have water, and when we have it, it can barely suffice for drinking, so how should we can be careful to wash our hands regularly?”, asked Ahmed, a resident of a remote area, and called on everyone to provide the required aids along with spreading awareness about the virus.
The Yemen Red Crescent Society (YRCS) is an independent voluntary relief organization. It was founded half a century ago, in 1968, for humanitarian purposes. YRCS works as an aid organization in the domains of humanitarian services across the country, and practices its activities according to the Yemeni Constitution, Geneva Conventions, and the basic principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that YRCS performs its activities as part of them.