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Getting ahead of the curve

By Audrey E. Korte

30-year old widow and mother of four, Mary B Fofanah living in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone, didn't believe in COVID-19 at first. She thought it was a money-making scheme. Though her mother died from the pandemic, it wasn't until the Active Ambassadors Network Sierra Leone ( AANSL) showed up to spread the message about the virus that she became convinced that COVID-19 is real and deadly.

Hidden Voices Salone spoke to Mary through a translator about her experience.

She said she did not believe in COVID-19 even after losing her mother to it. But after hearing it explained by AANSL volunteers, she changed her mind and is now trying to spread the information to friends and neighbours.

The widow said it's tough to social- distance because, in her residence, ten people are sharing a single room. She's now on the lookout for signs of the disease among relatives and neighbours and said she would make sure to take people to the hospital should they exhibit symptoms.

Mary said she tells her children to protect themselves -- though it is hard to get children to be safe when they play together. She encourages them to wash their hands, not touch their faces and wear masks.

"It's amazing to some extent that now she realises the importance of community awareness," AANSL CEO and President Abass M. Sesay said. Abass started the youth-centred NGO a few years ago. It works in Freetown and Makeni, and other remote villages across the North of the country.

AANSL had been to communities in Freetown and its outskirts and now in Makeni for awareness on the dangers of COVID-19. They carried handouts along with bags and buckets full of supplies. They also brought the message that COVID-19 is real. It's dangerous, and its spread is prevented by keeping distance between people, handwashing and wearing masks.

Residents were intrigued. Who were these young adults with their faces covered, and why were they carrying a megaphone and brightly coloured bags, bins and papers? People stepped out from homes and businesses, stopped their bikes and began gathering around the group of about one dozen young people, wanting to know what the AANSL members were doing and what message they brought with them.

"They do not have any idea about how to prevent themselves from getting sick. They don't even know how fast the virus can spread", said AANSL Deputy Kadiatu Saida Kamara. "We were teaching them and guiding them, giving them the precautions to take the measures that they should put in place, so they could not contract the disease. It was not easy, but we did get through it."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa CDC, there have been 3,918 cases of the novel coronavirus in Sierra Leone thus far. Seventy-nine cases were fatal, and 1,161 cases are active, meaning about 2,678 people have recovered from it. However, the likelihood that more cases are making the way through the population is high.

"There was a need, and the need was very straightforward -- to protect ourselves, our family and community from COVID," Sesay said. "We have to pass on the rightful information and also to ensure people understand what COVID is all about."

AANSL began this COVID-19 education initiative in April, Kamara and Sesay said. Its purpose was to educate the masses and target high-risk society members with education and resources to stop the virus' spread.

"We are targeting vulnerable people, especially (the) disabled. We are targeting women. We are targeting youth and the older people," said Sesay.

Initially, the campaign was self-funded, which is no small feat since it comprises youth and students. "We were looking for funding, for grants," Sesay said.

After receiving a $500 COVID-19 community response grant from the U.S.-based Wells Mountain Initiative and getting 100 packages of bags that could be handed out to women and children with things like soap, sanitary items and masks from UNFP, AANSL began a month of daily work that targeted different communities that they thought were likely to be overlooked by other organisations.

Kamara said it was apparent to members of the NGO that people were not getting the message about the dangers of COVID-19. That misinformation was spreading like wildfire across the region.

Brima Benson is a 25-year-old living at Four-Mile outside of Freetown. He said nobody had come to tell them about COVID-19 until AANSL showed up in June. He said he never believed COVID-19 could affect his community.

"During the time of Ebola, you see people die. They say COVID come here, and we don't see people die, Benson said. "Then a man came to our village and did a sensitisation campaign, and I started seeing it makes sense. They helped us. They brought us buckets and a liquid detergent. They were the only people who came."

Benson said he heard things about how COVID-19 was caused by 5G and thought it was a hoax meant to advance the internet. When Sesay and the rest of the AANSL workers showed up, they explained to people how COVID-19 works, spreads, and its symptoms.

"He explained so many things like how to use face masks. At that time in the community, nobody was wearing masks," Benson said.

Now Benson said people take precautions. They believe the threat of COVID-19 is real and affects Africans, not just Americans and Europeans.

For Sesay and Kamara that makes the work worth the effort.

"Whatever we do, those packages that were given, there are life-changing opportunities for those that are getting them," Sesay said. We see the joy there. We are seeing it's contributing towards saving lives. People are saying, 'Oh, thank you. You came at the right time to give us the right information.'"

Though AANSL used all the grant funding and resources they had available for the fight against COVID-19, they are looking for more funding and continue to educate the masses about keeping safe. They hope to pick up where they left off if money becomes available. In the meantime, they are glad they jumped in when they saw the need.

"There was one specific day that was hard. Hard but good," Kamara said. "It was during the month of Ramadan. We were all fasting when we were going to one village. It was exhausting. After distributing the things we bought for them, we took pictures in the villages and made fun with the people and laughed. When we got back to the meeting, we were like, 'whoa, this is worth it. We are making headway.'"

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