Community Health Toolkit

Gender, COVID and misinformation

Hi everyone – hoping you may have some suggestions on a COVID-19 response project Ladysmith is developing with UN Women in Colombia, to address the needs of the Venezuelan migrant population and their host communities.

We currently run a USAID-funded pilot project on the Colombian/Venezuelan border called Cosas de Mujeres (‘Women’s stuff’), that uses WhatsApp for Business to provide information to women about services that prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Over the past 2 weeks, we’ve seen a striking uptick in messages from women who are ‘sheltered-in-place’ with violent partners and most GBV-related services are closed, who have lost their source of income because they can’t leave the house, and who have COVID symptoms but are being turned away by some health centres because they are Venezuelan. We are also hearing a lot of misinformation about how to prevent getting COVID-19, what the rules are around isolation, and what services are and are not available.

We’ve been asked by UN Women to adapt and scale our pilot project to respond to these new demands in other cities, and to do so, we need to get a bit more technologically efficient. We’re currently responding to incoming messages ourselves, and this won’t work if we expand to new regions of the country. Automation isn’t an option due to the sensitive nature of SGBV; because migrants are often targeted with automated spam, and trust needs to be established with them; and because the requests we get require human-to-human problem solving (e.g. when a service provider refuses treatment on discriminatory grounds and a plan B needs to be established, or when a woman messages in who is facing multiple issues like physical abuse, loss of income, and an elder parent with COVID symptoms).

Any insights or tools you’d like to share would be welcome!

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Very interesting project @Tara! A few resources that you might find helpful:

Earlier today the Community Health Impact Coalition published a position paper about the role for community health workers in the covid response. https://twitter.com/chw_impact/status/1242476010655924224

While some of the guidance focuses on support for professionalized CHW programs (e.g. around community-based rapid testing for covid), other guidance might be relevant to any lay case worker, outreach worker, or frontline worker who is likely to be involved in the response and may have relatively minimal training. In addition to the section on protecting health workers, the section on protecting the vulnerable from economic shocks may be relevant:

  • Support self-isolation and monitor patients in the community while ensuring delivery of food, social, and medical support.
  • Combat misinformation, fear, and mistrust by acting as a bridge to the formal health system and national authorities. Inspire positive behavior change and collective action.

My second suggestion is that it might be helpful to connect with the Praekelt team, who are part of the Impact Coalition and co-authored the above position paper. They’re working with WHO on their WhatsApp bot for covid response, which is a fully automated service. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-health-alert-brings-covid-19-facts-to-billions-via-whatsapp

I agree that automation might not work for the kind of information you need to provide, especially dealing with misinformation. Praekelt has worked on other projects though that aren’t fully automated, including the help desk software https://www.turn.io/

I’ll follow up off-thread to connect you with the Praekelt team!

I’d also be interested to hear how anyone else on this thread is thinking about misinformation. The big tech companies are all taking steps to address covid misinformation that people may receive through their platforms (e.g. Twitter’s new policy), and some analysts are now linking covid disinformation to pro-Kremlin outlets seeking to aggravate the covid outbreak. The public health community has dealt with rumors and bad information for a long time, but this kind of strategic disinformation is new and I’d be interested to hear about responses coming from within governments and public health institutions.

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