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Spreading the message in Maputo

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COVID-19 has arrived in Mozambique. Our MUVA project sets out the work they are doing in support of the Ministry of Health’s risk communications.

Covid-19 has arrived in Mozambique. The government is scrambling to get ahead of the crisis, but events are moving quickly. I lead an OPM programme in Mozambique called MUVA which is about female empowerment and entrepreneurship. It’s not health-related, but like everyone else, we have turned our attention to how we can help in this crisis and have quickly mobilised. What I have seen in the last week has brought home the scale of the challenge Mozambique faces, and it has also inspired me. The big lesson: to stop this we have to be quick, pragmatic, and work with what we have.

Our biggest asset in MUVA is that we have a large number of young people with whom we have been working for the last five years. We selected, trained and hired them to be facilitators, mentors, teachers, assistant teachers and more. This cohort work to help disenfranchised urban youth to access economic resources through jobs (formal and informal) and through SMEs and entrepreneurship initiatives. When we started working with this group they were all out of school and out of a job. The aim of the MUVA  programme is empowerment, and they all became “something more” in their community and now have a role, more respect (including self-respect) and a job. They have now trained hundreds of their peers and overall MUVA has about 5,000 beneficiaries.

As Covid-19 landed we asked ourselves ‘how can we help in the crisis response’? What rapidly came to mind is the different MUVA projects that focus on individual and collective behaviour change - in our case related to economic empowerment and gender equality. We have experience developing behaviour change messaging, and we also have our cohort of trained young people as a medium through which we deliver our message. As we know from other pandemics and countries who are already dealing with the Covid-19 response, behaviour change is vital, especially in dense urban areas.

We approached the Ministry of Health (MoH) last week to offer our support to the ‘social mobilisation’ of Mozambique’s citizens. The Ministry jumped on the idea.  

What will these mobilisers do? Right now, they are helping to spread the message through peer to peer networks, for e.g. with homemade videos. They are also interacting with local institutions such as civil society, community based organisations, schools and local leaders to spread the message.. This approach draws on the best and latest ideas about risk communication and what works, taking lessons from crises like Ebola where existing structures were used to communicate through trusted intermediaries to key audiences / communities. Trained mobilisers will quickly raise the awareness of others, enabling swift multiplication of trusted voices. Making short videos to share through their own digital communities using phones, has also been a way to share messages fast while keeping human contact to a minimum.   

The MOH staff today who came to deliver the training were incredible, concerned, and very very pragmatic. One of them gave an analogy “If you want to throw a party for your kid, you need to know how much money you have. If you only have 1,000 MZN ($15), you have to do what you can with 1,000 MZN and that’s it”. It sums up the situation for this and many governments – we are a long way from the ideal situation and must work with what we have.

Despite the intensity of the current situation, the MOH managed to send four staff to train our mobilisers in small groups. They were conscious of what they didn’t know – a new disease and a situation evolving very quickly. The parameters were clear on the messaging: we can’t answer all the questions, we can’t offer treatment, but we do know what we can do to prevent the spread. For the last two to three weeks the country and the people have already put in place some measures to prevent contagion. Some were imposed, others were just creative responses. Informal taxis have been requested to ensure that the number of people in public transport would be less than the number of possible people sitting down. This helps ensure safe distancing. Volunteers are cleaning the buses and taxis at the terminal stations. In the supermarket and other places to purchase things yellow lines have been put to ensure distance between you and the cashier. In the supermarket they put trolleys around the person weighing the vegetables attached by plastic bags to protect them. Mats with bleach can be found at the entrance of some places to disinfect the feet and shoes and in many places there is a basin with water and soap and when not possible with ashes (which you might not know is just as good to clean greasy surfaces).

This is a fast moving situation, but we can draw some important lessons. First, the need to move swiftly. It has been emphasised a lot, but on the ground here it is clear that a rapid, imperfect solution, is much better than a delayed, perfect one. All the lessons from crisis response tell us that bold is best.

Second, governments need practical help above all else. Internationals –those who are left in country – can be of best help by rolling up their sleeves, figuring stuff out and then doing it. The MoH didn’t want analysis or recommendations – they wanted us to provide initiative and do it.

Third, the key is to re-purpose existing structures and channels to get things done quickly and practically. MUVA happens to have an inspiring and willing ‘local legion’ of young people who want to do their bit. This structure can be quickly mobilised and re-directed to the crisis response. But it’s essential that their work is guided by the science and aligned with the Ministry’s message, so the training was crucial. Now they can go and train exponentially more trusted voices.

Finally, for internationals: you can help most if you stay on the frontline. There certainly will be ways that internationals can remotely help developing countries fight this, but the more of us that stay on the ground the more we can help our partners, colleagues and friends withstand the coming storm.