BISSAU – The COVID-19 global health pandemic has proven to be a major test of our collective action. Globally and locally, communities are finding new ways to prioritize their health. With the support of their trained Community Management Committees (CMC), Tostan’s partner communities in Guinea Bissau are showing us that the community-led model is very pertinent for crisis situations.
In the beginning of June, Guinea-Bissau reached over 1,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 153 recovered patients, and 12 COVID-19 related deaths. In its contingency plan, the Government of Guinea-Bissau cites dissemination of prevention and control messages to ensure community ownership of and participation in prevention and response measures. To support the government plan, the national coordination of Tostan Guinea-Bissau has integrated with the communications wing of the Center of Operations for Health Emergencies (COES). In keeping with the government’s plan, Tostan Guinea-Bissau will deliver over 11,500 informational brochures to partner communities and local government authorities in the Bafata, Gabu, and Oio regions. We will also continue remote communications with communities and public radio broadcasts.
Prior to the first reported cases in Guinea-Bissau, partner communities across the country had already adapted their monthly awareness raising action plans in February to spread the word to community members about the importance of vigilance to safeguard communities. Before prevention information about the virus was widely available, the CMCs had preemptively identified handwashing with soap and bleach as a major deterrent. At an inter-sector meeting of community members in Farim, the host CMC directed the vehicles carrying the participants to a sanitary zone where they were invited to wash their hands with bleached water. This image set the pace and standard for other CMCs as we later learned that handwashing with water and soap was cited as a one of the globally recognized prevention methods for COVID-19.
In the following months, CMCs in communities with health centers demonstrated that they understood their roles and responsibilities with regard to the well-being of their community. For example, CMCs of Mafanco, Farim Bantandjan, Sonaco, and Ga Mamudo joined the community awareness-raising brigades created by Ministry of Public Health officials. This ensured that community members were receiving important health information from a trusted source and in a language they understood. Communities who were self-informed in advance of the virus’ presence contributed to social norms shifts.
By April 2020, CMCs acknowledged it was their responsibility to ensure communities were protected from the virus as well as the socio-economic challenges arising as an effect of the pandemic. The rise of cases and the government-mandated national lockdown came in a period of the year when communities nationwide enter the cashew harvest, the main income generating activity for over 80% of rural families in Guinea-Bissau. Approval of government grants that support communities to participate in the harvest were delayed; in response, CMCs disbursed Community Development Funds to borrowers with feasible project ideas, and Solidarity Funds to households with limited livelihood options and health emergencies.
Tostan field personnel have continuously maintained communication with communities to advise, collect information, and heighten the sense of solidarity during this unprecedented time. As information on COVID-19 prevention methods increased in precision and the Tostan informational brochures became available, the supervisors addressed the origins of the virus, hygiene recommendations, and social norms that reduce the spread COVID-19. During the emissions, supervisors called on community members to adopt the “wave and heart touch” gestures as substitutes for the traditional handshake. This information has an important psycho-social support role for the communities as it has allowed them to collectively understand why traditional greetings which were universally viewed as a symbol of decent conduct is now discouraged.
Author: Yussuf Sane, Tostan National Coordinator in Guinea Bissau