Interfaith campaign helps change norms in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 fight
“Before AWET came here a lot of people did not understand COVID-19 and the measures they can take to prevent it.”
At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in rural Mashonaland West, councillor Bernard Chidhakwa feared for the worst.
Chidhakwa, as a community leader in the Magunje area, is compelled to attend gatherings such as funerals and says he was always alarmed about lack of awareness about the disease.
In most Zimbabwean cultures as soon as death is announced friends and relatives pour into the bereaved family’s home.
A typical funeral can attract as many as 500 people and can stretch for several days.
There is a lot of singing and dancing in memory of the dead with mourners staying at the homestead until after the burial.
When the government first introduced a national lockdown to stop the spread of the pandemic, the number of people who can attend funerals was capped at 30, but in remote areas the regulations were seldom adhered to.
“People, especially at funerals, were not observing regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19 such as wearing of face masks, social distancing and washing of hands,” Chidhakwa said.
“There were even shocking incidents where people coming from other areas to bury their relatives, who died of COVID-19, will demand to see their bodies contrary to advice by health authorities.
“We had cases where people were arrested for opening coffins of their relatives who would have died of COVID-19 as they did not understand why there was no body viewing.”
But Chidhakwa says attitudes in the community changed dramatically after the Apostolic Women Empower Trust (AWET) started deploying behaviour change facilitators (BCFs) drawn from diverse faiths to raise awareness about the disease.
© UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Dorothy Meki
AWET, supported by UNICEF with funding from the Health Development Fund (HDF), is complementing the work done by the Ministry of Health and Child Care in fighting the pandemic at the grassroots level in 52 districts.
“Thanks to AWET and its partners we now feel safer,” Chidhakwa said.
“Before AWET came here a lot of people did not understand COVID-19 and the measures they can take to prevent it, but now there is a lot of awareness.
The councillor said he was organising mobile vaccination teams to visit his ward to bring the services closer for the elderly and for people living with disabilities.
Adaptations to community and religious gatherings
Headman Rangwani Rangwani, also from Magunje, said people now appreciated that they can still mourn their loved ones without taking part in large gatherings.
“Funerals were our biggest headache because everyone wanted to gather in one place as per our traditions,” Rangwani said.
“The awareness campaigns by AWET have helped our people understand the importance of protecting themselves through social distancing, washing of hands and sanitising.”
Ephat Machokoto, a leader at the Zion Apostolic Church (1923) in Karoi, said they had to introduce a lot of changes in the way they organised their services after community engagements with AWET.
“Traditionally, we sing and dance a lot during our services and for proper voice coordination we have to be close to each other, but after our interactions with the BCFs we have changed the way we do things,” Machokoto said.
“We now organise ourselves in a way that there is social distancing during church services and we observe other measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
The church leader said he also had to lead by example in becoming one of the first people in the community to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We got a lot of information about COVID-19 from AWET and village health workers and I felt it was prudent to get vaccinated and also to encourage our church members to enrol for the vaccination programme so that we can feel safer when we come to church,” Machokoto added.
AWET is targeting community leaders as influencers in shaping individual behaviour and shifting practices that can increase COVID-19 transmission such as traditional gatherings.
Sharon Chiringa, the AWET focal person in Hurungwe, said they had deployed BCFs in 36 rural wards and six urban wards.
“These people are drawn from the local communities and are from diverse faiths,” Chiringa said.
Following the national roll out of the vaccination programme, the BCFs have been actively involved in increasing community knowledge and building vaccine acceptance.
Chiringa added: “We had a lot of traditional churches that were against COVID-19 vaccination because of their doctrines, but we are now seeing their leaders coming forward to seek assistance because of our awareness programmes”.