Coronavirus Prevention and Social Cohesion in Central African Republic
In the Central African Republic, a radio is a tool for peacebuilding and safety for social cohesion. After conflict ensued between Muslim and Christian communities in 2012, thousands of people lost their lives to violence. CRS, which has had a presence in CAR since 1999, works with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Union Bêkou Trust Fund and other partners to integrate peacebuilding into community programming. Since the arrival of COVID-19, radio broadcasts have been critical to dispelling rumors about the disease and maintaining solidarity and social cohesion in the communities.
A radio station in Zemio, Central African Republic, broadcasts a program to surrounding communities.
Photo by Zack Baddorf for CRS
Rumors and suspicion
“When I heard the first case of COVID-19 in Mbaiki, I felt it was the end for us all,” says Claudine Imangakala, a 39-year-old mother of three. “I had heard that COVID-19 is deadly and could spread quickly to people and is difficult to stop. My family and I were afraid, as was the whole community. I was anxious about what tomorrow would look like.”
To support families like Claudine’s, USAID and the European Union Bêkou Trust Fund are incorporating COVID-19 awareness and protection measures into its social cohesion programming in USAID’s “Ita na Ita” project (People to People, in native Sango) and the European Union Bêkou Kiri Ngo Na Kodro (Return to the Community) project. Ita na Ita and Kiri Ngo Na Kodro seek to bring peace and trust back to communities in CAR. Through radio broadcasts, text messaging, and small groups called listening clubs, CRS’ project teams deliver messages on COVID-related threats to social cohesion—such as stigma around the disease—and promote solidarity, empathy and self-care.
Jean Paul Kpiboroano, a volunteer radio director, speaks during a broadcast program.
Photo by Zack Baddorf for CRS
Fear of stigma
“When the virus first arrived in CAR, no one knew what to expect. Rumors were swirling about how the virus could spread, and there was suspicion among different groups. After so many years of conflict, the Central African context is fragile, but its people are resilient,” said Abbé Koy-Demb Jean Rodriguez, director of the Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission in Mbaiki, CRS’ partner in the Ita na Ita project.
COVID stigma reduction is integral to CRS’ peacebuilding work. Stigma can affect those perceived as somehow associated with transmission of the virus, and can lead to exclusion, blocked access to services or even violence.
Fear of stigma can drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination, prevent people from seeking health care immediately or discourage people from adopting healthy behaviors, thus undermining efforts to mobilize an effective response to contain the pandemic.
A radio program broadcasts messages on COVID-related threats to social cohesion as part of a broader goal to bring peace and trust back to communities in the Central African Republic.
Photo by Francois Sagna/CRS
Stigma can also undermine social cohesion by widening divisions in a community. CRS trains staff and community facilitators on principles and practices for stigma reduction, including avoiding divisive terms and promoting solidarity and inclusion through messaging and action.
“When the Ita na Ita team started sensitization, it was a big relief because beyond protection measures they explained that we should not panic but check with health agents if we had symptoms,” says Claudine. “I also remember messages that encouraged us to keep positive thoughts and healthy relationships with others and family members while respecting the protection measures.”
Further adapting to the context of COVID, Kiri Ngo Na Kodro and Ita na Ita deliver ongoing technical support through text messaging to maintain communication on the status of community programming. For example, these text messages, along with radio broadcasts, disseminate messages on COVID prevention measures so that local savings groups may continue to meet with distancing protocols in place.
“Our priority is to keep participants safe while continuing to advance social cohesion and economic strengthening in CAR through Ita na Ita activities,” said Francois Sagna, European Union Bekou Trust Fund Kiri Ngo Na Kodro Program Manager.
Claudine, for one, has taken the messages to heart. “I have a jar and I buy soaps so that everyone at home washes their hands when coming in from outside. Even visitors have to wash their hands before being allowed to come into my home,” Claudine says. “It took time to explain to my children how serious COVID-19 is. The most difficult part for them was to stop shaking hands, but now they follow the measures and wash their hands regularly.”
Not only have Ita na Ita and Kiri Ngo Na Kodro helped community members better understand COVID transmission and prevention.
“I learned a lot from the radio broadcasts, where it was said that we need to stay united so that this disease doesn’t become a source of hatred among us,” says Claudine.