Minh Pham (far left), WHO Communications Officer taking photos at the COVID-19 vaccination site in Nan ma commune, Xin Man district, Ha Giang, in December 2021.
Minh Pham (far left), WHO Communications Officer taking photos at the COVID-19 vaccination site in Nan ma commune, Xin Man district, Ha Giang, in December 2021.

Reaching the unreached in Viet Nam and Zambia to raise awareness on COVID-19

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in countries globally causing the loss of human life, some communities – especially the unreached – still believe the myths and misconceptions about the Coronavirus as the traditional flu. To raise awareness about the deadly virus and advocate the importance of getting vaccinated, two national UN Volunteers in Viet Nam and Zambia continue their outreach to the most vulnerable groups – refugees in the most remote areas of their regions. 

With a professional background in Marketing and Media, and a thesis on Health Communications, Minh Pham, a national UN Volunteer Junior Communications Officer with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Viet Nam. Just as the fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, the population was in need of a lot of information about many issues. Minh was sent to the most impoverished areas of the country to document the vaccination efforts of frontline medical workers. 

The people, despite living in harsh conditions, were very approachable. 

We met the doctors and nurses in the community health center who commuted to work on their beaten-up scooters, on the narrow, curvy roads up the hill, carrying vaccines from the cold storage to vaccination sites every day. -- Minh Pham, national UN Volunteer Specialist with WHO, Viet Nam.

The local people – the Dao minority ethnic group – usually walked on foot to the vaccination sites to get their COVID-19 vaccine before starting their farm work. Not all Dao can speak fluent Vietnamese so advocacy for the vaccination is carried out by their village elder. One of them is Mr. Pao, a communication officer from the provincial government, and a local Dao.

Every day, he put a 15-kilogram loudspeaker on his scooter, rode around the village, and broadcasted the message of vaccination for all in both Vietnamese and Dao. Messengers like Mr. Pao, though larger than life, insisted that they were purely doing their job in spreading awareness. 

Like Mr. Pao, I am also a communications officer promoting the awareness of vaccination, and therefore, had a sense of understanding with him. However, our similarities end there! While I posted a message on social media on my MacBook, Mr. Pao rode his scooter trying to get the message of vaccination to the villagers. --Minh Pham

This experience made Minh realize that there is more to work than just earning a high figure salary and climbing up the corporate ladder. The pandemic has exposed massive inequalities and has thus forced countless into and below the poverty line. The most impoverished and the most vulnerable got hit the hardest. The middle class shrank. The upper class managed to survive relatively intact.

Minh Pham (far left in blue gilet) and other WHO officers with local health personnel observing a COVID-19 vaccination site in Nan Ma commune, Xin Man district – Ha Giang province. December 2021. ©️WHO Viet Nam
Minh Pham (far left in blue gilet) and other WHO officers with local health personnel observing a COVID-19 vaccination site in Nan Ma commune, Xin Man district – Ha Giang province. December 2021. ©️WHO, Viet Nam

Working for the World Health Organization during one of the most remarkable events of our time has been an impactful experience! Not only did I get a glimpse into the work and life of an international civil servant, but I also felt much more connected with the community and people around me. --Minh Pham

Working with the United Nations system was very different from Minh's prior experience in marketing and sales. During his UN Volunteer assignment, he understood that it was not about a number on a spreadsheet, or about potential customers to reach a particular marketing target. It was about real people – with lives and ambitions!

They are my fellow Vietnamese, my compatriots, even though our worlds may be poles apart! This health crisis amplified their struggles. It stressed the notion that health is truly the cornerstone of society. Without healthy citizens, there is no economic progress and social development. If the society cannot take care of its most vulnerable, then it cannot transcend any further. --Minh Pham

While Minh was trying to reach remote areas of Viet Nam to raise awareness on COVID-19 vaccination, some thousand miles away, Wycliffe Matende, a national UN Volunteer Specialist Public Health and Nutrition Associate with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was working hard to deconstruct myths and misconceptions about the vaccination among refugees in Zambia.

They say seeing is believing, but this phrase cannot work in some communities in Zambia. --Wycliffe Matende, national UN Volunteer Public Health and Nutrition Associate with UNHCR, Zambia

Wycliffe Matende, Public Health & Nutrition Associate receiving Covid19 vaccination, to protect himself and others.
Wycliffe Matende, national UN Volunteer Public Health and Nutrition Associate receiving COVID-19 vaccination, to protect himself and others. ©️UNHCR Zambia, 2022 

Wycliffe's responsibilities include planning and supporting health activities and making sure better healthcare and nutrition services reach the refugees, and persons of concern including women and children.

During my UN Volunteer assignment, I have learned how important volunteering is to lead others to action. Some people may remain adamant and risk their lives if there is nobody to influence them positively. Volunteers are there to lead others, to raise the flag of truth, and to save lives even amidst confusion. --Wycliffe Matende

COVID-19 came upon us with a lot of myths and misconceptions, and vulnerable communities including the refugees came in its fold. Social media exacerbated the confusion about facts. There was a lot of miscommunication and negative media. Government and various stakeholders set health preventive measures to ensure people are protected against the virus. In addition, risk communication and community engagement played a pivotal role to hinder community transmission of the virus.

Zambia is experiencing a fourth wave of COVID-19 and a lot of consequent deaths since March 2022. Despite this, people continue holding onto myths about the virus and brush if off as the traditional flu. As a result, there is low compliance to the "Five Golden Rules" – including wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, frequent hand washing, avoiding crowded places, and seeking medical attention at the onset of symptoms.

Amid such misinformation about the pandemic, I as a UN Volunteer made a strategy to engage the community on the importance to adhere to public health measures, to get tested for COVID-19, and to get vaccinated against the virus. With the help of dedicated community health workers and volunteers, we conducted door-to-door awareness and sensitization campaigns in Mayukwayukwa Refugee settlement and distributed over 35,000 face masks and other hygiene materials during the lockdown. --Wycliffe Matende

Wycliffe and his team also conducted compliance monitoring in places of worship, schools and workplaces. This strategy was replicated in two other refugee settlements in Zambia. A positive change was seen thereafter. The use of face masks and COVID-19 testing increased. The Ministry of Health designated health facilities in the settlement as COVID-19 vaccination sites and provided Rapid Diagnostic Test kits and vaccines. 

As a UN Volunteer, I believe I was responsible for the safety of the community members and gaining their trust. And that's why I had to take the lead in being tested and getting vaccinated. I felt like a true volunteer in that moment! To be able to influence people and help them at the same time. --Wycliffe Matende

Some community members had doubts about the vaccine. They believed that the vaccine kills people. They waited till people got vaccinated and then saw the reaction. Gradually their impressions started to change. About 8,000 refugees in Zambia tested for COVID-19, and about 6,000 were vaccinated with Asta Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer, and Sinopharm.