Eastern Cape alliance launches digital network to fight Covid-19 in rural areas

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A coalition of farmers, students, academics and activists established the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano (community action network). (Photo: Unsplash / Rami Al Zayat)  Less
A coalition of farmers, students, academics and activists established the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano (community action network). (Photo: Unsplash / Rami Al Zayat) Less

As Covid-19 infections escalate in the Eastern Cape, confusion, misinformation and anxiety are rife. The need for clear, reliable and locally relevant information is urgent, especially in isolated rural communities. A coalition of farmers, students, academics and activists are using WhatsApp messages in vernacular isiXhosa to get the message out.

There have been growing calls for accessible and reliable information about the Covid-19 pandemic in all languages to reach all of South Africa’s citizens. Two weeks ago, Sibulele Poswayo made an urgent appeal for Covid-19 information campaigns in isiXhosa. She argued that “in a mostly poor rural province like the Eastern Cape, where many households are headed by women, it’s vital that facts about the pandemic reach the people who are all too often forgotten”.

Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified six criteria which need to be in place for a safe easing of lockdown – the sixth criteria being that “communities are fully engaged” and understand that “all individuals have key roles in enabling and in some cases implementing new control measures.” Furthermore, the WHO indicates that “understanding knowledge, behaviours, perceptions, and identifying the right channels and community-based networks and influencers to promote scientific and public health messages will be a key determinant of the effectiveness of the response”.

Three months into the lockdown, and with the number of infections beginning to ramp up in the Eastern Cape, confusion, misinformation and anxiety are rife. The need for clear, reliable and locally relevant information is more urgent than ever. The critical state of the province’s health services further compounds the seriousness of the need for citizens to be as well prepared as possible to prevent, manage and recover from the impacts of Covid-19.

In response to this urgent need to get reliable information about Covid-19 to isolated, rural communities in the Eastern Cape, a coalition of farmers, students, academics and activists established the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano (community action network). While the approach was inspired by the community action networks developed in Cape Town, the deep rural context was significantly different. The Iqonga LoThungelwano therefore chose to build on existing rurally based learning and solidarity networks in responding to Covid-19. Joining these networks together, the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano took a decision to focus heavily on developing a learning and solidarity network to facilitate the flow of reliable information, advice and solidarity for rural isiXhosa speakers.

Some of the important feedback from rural partners relates to the mismatch between the language and tone of the directives issued by official sources, and people’s lived realities, cultural norms, and contextual concerns.

Since its inception in March, this network has grown rapidly and now shares information weekly with a network of local champions across more than 200 villages throughout the Eastern Cape, who in turn provide feedback on local experiences, needs for information and support in facing Covid-19. The network provides a forum for the sharing of verified, contextualised and translated information about:

  • The disease itself: how to slow the spread, best practices for mask making and wearing, hand washing in water insecure situations, safe sharing of food between community members, how to safely care for coronavirus patients;
  • Contextualised social responses to lockdown – giving advice on how to access the new social grants, linking people to food relief initiatives, tracking and reporting villages with no access to water, following up on reports of local clinics turning people away, police misconduct; and
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Across all of this, the primary approach of the network has been to validate, translate, mediate and share the most current Covid-19 and lockdown related information, and to respond to queries or calls for support arising from the network.

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All of this takes place over WhatsApp. To facilitate this, the community champions are provided with monthly data bundles. They use this data to send the materials to their own networks, diverse groups that include councillors, municipal officials, traditional leaders, healthcare workers, grandmothers, policewomen, fisherfolk, high school learners and more. Responses, questions and suggestions are sent back to the coordination team, ensuring a two-way flow of information that is critical in this time of limited movement.

Some of the important feedback from rural partners relates to the mismatch between the language and tone of the directives issued by official sources, and people’s lived realities, cultural norms, and contextual concerns.

In the Eastern Cape, there has been a lot of concern about the spread of the virus at large funerals, and therefore, understandably, government has tried to restrict the attendance and duration of funerals. However, the way in which this regulation has been communicated has not taken into account the profound cultural and spiritual significance of particular funeral rituals for different EC citizens, exposing the complex relationship between “science” and “culture”.

We have seen the need for official responses to the pandemic to give greater consideration to the complex, nuanced social and cultural dynamics in different communities, in order for the urgent and necessary regulatory interventions to take root. Just this last week, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize announced a Ministerial Advisory Committee to support social change, saying there is a need for us to “build a new culture” in order to respond to Covid-19.

Critically, as the pandemic continues to cut a swathe through rural communities, the interactions and relationships formed through the network help to give Covid-19 a human face, and to bridge the geographic distance between us all.

In future, the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano network believes it can help address these and other issues by helping to facilitate dialogue and social learning around such concerns. By doing so, the network believes a middle ground can be found that adapts to meet the health requirements of preventing Covid-19 spread, without undermining important cultural practices.

As the pandemic unfolds and knowledge and information needs evolve, feedback from the ground suggests a need for targeted support around food systems, schooling and caring for coronavirus patients within communities. As one woman in Machubeni said, “The government indicated it had employed extra assistants to help people in urban areas, likewise they can do that here and employ at least two people to assist, per village. There are so many people seeking assistance…”

One of the active teams within the network comprises a group of young, aspiring mobile journalists. Using their mobile phones, these grassroots journalists started out making short films about life in the time of coronavirus. These short films include a story about a man who makes sneakers who turned his hand to customising face masks to make them more appealing to urban youth; an interview with a grandmother to explore what the virus means to older people; and a series of mask-making instructional videos in isiXhosa. These videos are available on the Iqonga Lothungelwano YouTube channel.

Critically, as the pandemic continues to cut a swathe through rural communities, the interactions and relationships formed through the network help to give Covid-19 a human face, and to bridge the geographic distance between us all.

During this time of fear and physical separation, the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano network provides a platform for people to remain connected and to care for one another. DM/MC

The authors are members of the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano.


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