COVID-19 and communal transformation in South Africa

That COVID-19 has radically altered lives across the globe is a given. At first regarded as a merely Euro-centred phenomenon mainly among ordinary citizens in low-income communities, its effects have been particularly hard in these low-income areas given the (strict) lockdown rules that were effected. Many lost of income, food insecurities are still rife and challenges to infection control are rearing their ugly head, long after the second waves and in anticipation for a third wave as winter knocks on the doors. The country has slowly reopened economic activities and schooling has resumed. But the situation in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, or townships, remains extremely fragile.

Challenges experienced during the height of the pandemic transformed the way community organizations work for the better. Organizations that worked in silos during other emergencies bundled their expertise and resources to form collaborative networks. Since our inception, the Accelerated Development Initiative (2018) has been operating through self-funding in Johannesburg’s (South and the West Rand areas) most under-served communities. Being home to millions of migrant citizens from across the continent, our area of focus took a very sharp turn upon realization that governmental intervention programmes were mainly targeting South African citizens, we decided to focus on the migrant population offering mainly food packages, soap. disinfectants and sanitary ware. We had to adapt to challenges posed by the novelty of COVID-19. 100% of our activists were volunteers and the relationships we built allowed us to follow the organizations’ community engagement efforts during the COVID-19 outbreak. Their work provides lessons on how to improve coordination of community engagement activities during health emergencies. The organization effectively reached and mobilized community members during the strict COVID-19 lockdown. It also showed how to strengthen South Africa’s health system by creating meaningful collaborations between communities, health workers and research institutes and building a “healthy public”.

Existing networks and new approaches

In Johannesburg South, we teamed up with communities and used education centres to do mobilization campaign in the last quarter of 2020. Our focus was on handing out home-made masks to high-risk groups, and information dissemination about the pandemic. This approach moved beyond traditional public health community engagement efforts and this experience proved essential in shaping our outreach campaigns, going door-to-door to share COVID-19 information. Using existing links with individuals and other NGOs helped us to obtain free cloth masks, food vouchers and pamphlets, which were distributed in the community. ADI applied strategies from previous campaigns especially those used and developed by the Treatment Action Campaign in their fight for affordable treatment and better HIV care in South Africa through mass mobilization and health education programmes. Mobilizing communities during the COVID-19 hard lockdown forced volunteers to work in new, innovative ways using whatever resources that were at our disposal like social media platforms which we effectively used to collaborate, mobilize and share reports.

Creating a healthy public

Our rapid, innovative and flexible COVID-19 response is an example of effective community engagement. It manifested how the communities’ engagement transformed and brought us closer to multi-sectoral partners including government, other NPOs, religious organizations and health workers to inform people in affected communities and avert stigma. This approach was similar to theTAC’s HIV response. During the HIV pandemic, strategic partnerships like this were often facilitated through donor funding and formal “expert-led” communication strategies. But during the COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa, responses and relationships have arisen more organically. In creating a healthy nation for now and the future, the ADI seeks to engage various organizations and government departments to support its (and other similar NPOs) activities. Knowing this, responses to public health emergencies should focus on building strong, meaningful and well-funded local partnerships. It’s part of creating a “healthy public” that can support locally relevant, inclusive and sustainable responses. Our organization can be contacted through the details provided on our website: www.adi-africa.online

by Farai Mandaza, Southern Africa, South Africa