Angola: Community Health Mobilizers On the Frontlines of Angola's COVID-19 Response

Luanda — Gildo Sereia walks purposefully through the streets of Maianga, a populous neighbourhood on the outskirts of Angola's capital Luanda, passing between rows of pastel-coloured cinderblock homes and dispensing succinct advice to residents on hand hygiene or how to wear masks correctly.

The 32-year-old is one of around 90 recently-trained community health mobilizers now operating across Luanda to assist Angola's response to COVID-19. An experienced professional actor by trade, Gildo has taken to this new voluntary role with aplomb, having previously used his acting skills to raise awareness of other public health issues in various theatres across the city. "This is a dangerous virus that spreads quickly," he says. "We need to ensure that people in Angola take the essential measures to prevent its transmission."

During a week-long training, Gildo and his fellow volunteers learned about COVID-19 symptoms and transmission, biosafety measures and risk communications. They are now well-equipped to increase awareness around COVID-19 within the general population through individual door-to-door home visits and social mobilization campaigns in local markets and other busy communal areas.

The initiative is led by the Juvenile Association for the Support of Young People in Need (Jucarente) with support from World Health Organization (WHO), the Provincial Government of Luanda and the Angolan Network of Non-Governmental Organizations for the Fight against HIV/AIDS (ANASO). With a budget of around US $ 10 000, it aims to reach 10 000 families in six of the nine municipalities that comprise the capital and account for most of Angola's positive cases with key messages on COVID-19 prevention.

"This initiative will help to guarantee that everyone has the necessary information to protect themselves and participate in the response against COVID-19," says Dr José Gombo, president of Jucarente.

"The work of community health workers has routinely made a major contribution to combating epidemics, strengthening immunization and improving people's health in Angola," added Dr Javier Aramburu, WHO Acting Representative in Angola. "We believe that the new community health mobilizers will also now be able make a valuable contribution to strengthening the response to COVID-19."

The mobilizers' role is particularly critical in a context where, according to United Nations studies, internet penetration and literacy rates are often low and where many households also do not have regular access to television or radio messaging on COVID-19. Through their risk communications training, the mobilizers can also help to mitigate the widespread and potentially harmful misinformation and rumours that frequently fills this vacuum.

"Due to the need for social distancing, the regular mobilization campaigns have been carried out primarily through digital platforms, and this has been a handicap for people in communities with limited internet access. Now we can successfully reach a larger number of families," says Dr Gombo.

Back in Maianga, Ivone Lurde, a local resident, turned to community health mobilizers when she started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms some weeks ago. "Despite the massive amount of information conveyed by the media, it has not always been possible to be properly informed about the virus. It was thanks to the support of the mobilizers that I understood my symptoms and was referred to the health services," she says.

With Angola having begun to gradually ease some its lockdown restrictions at the end of May, the mobilizers will continue to provide a critical service as they travel across Luanda daily to keep residents informed. With ongoing support from WHO, Jucarante aims to train more volunteers in the coming weeks and ensure that they have adequate personal protective equipment and transportation to carry out their work safely and effectively.

"The training gave us the opportunity to better understand the disease, allowing us to mobilize people in our communities and to successfully perform the screening of COVID-19 suspected cases," says Gildo, as he and a small group of volunteers pass through a bustling food market engaging with stall owners and using a megaphone to put out messages on physical distancing and hand hygiene. "We must keep supporting our communities in the fight against this virus."

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