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Society and communities

Empowering vulnerable communities to fight Covid-19: the case of Zimbabwe

Researchers and NGOs are helping the displaced and marginalised to better protect themselves against the pandemic.

Covid-19 has left a devastating impact on the world, with the most vulnerable communities disproportionately affected. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living a precarious existence at the fringes of society are unable to afford the ‘luxury’ of Covid-19 protections such as quarantining and distancing. With limited access to critical public health information and resources such as handwashing facilities, sanitisers and masks necessary to comply with the recommended Covid-19 protective measures, displaced persons in Zimbabwe are facing immense challenges. This collaborative project works together with IDPs to be proactive in implementing protective measures that are sustainable and replicable across similar contexts.

We, a team of academics and NGO partners from the UK and Zimbabwe, are working closely with IDPs from two settlements in Zimbabwe as they work to protect themselves from Covid-19. An important part of this collaboration is to establish opportunities for IDPs to set up small businesses making and distributing Covid-19 protections so they are able to earn an income, critical when the country is under lockdown leaving IDPs facing harsh economic hardships.

As more people tested positive for Covid-19 in Zimbabwe last year, members of the two settlements reached out to National Age Network of Zimbabwe (NANZ), our NGO partner, for advice and support in protecting the IDPs. Lack of income and overcrowded settlements meant that much of the government advice was not relevant for the IDPs’ context. This led to the project team putting together a plan to adapt existing Covid-19 messages and precautions for the IDPs’ context in collaboration with members of the IDPs’ communities. The University of Nottingham team, led by Dr Juliet Thondhlana, formed partnerships with colleagues from the University of Wolverhampton, Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University (ZEGU), the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and Women’s University in Africa (WUA) to work with NANZ and IDPs in two settlements in Zimbabwe. We agreed on the following aims:

  • Adaptation of existing innovations such as hand-sanitising stations for the IDPs’ context
  • Review public health education messages to ensure relevance for these communities
  • Train IDPs to make face masks and sanitisers/soaps and plan to set up small business enterprises to generate income


Hand washing in action

Following extensive research of the lived experiences of the IDPs in the settlements through meetings with leaders and representatives of IDPs, questionnaires were distributed to a sample of individual IDPs to capture their priorities during Covid-19. We then observed day-to-day activities within the settlements to understand how they protect themselves against the virus, sources of knowledge and current preventive/protective measures and existing gaps. Using a transformative approach, we have established collaborative networks with the IDPs’ leaders and formed committees to reach an agreement on what is most important in protecting themselves.

Engineers from ZEGU are leading the adaptation process of their low-cost existing protective installations to make them suitable for the IDPs’ context. This includes adaptation of a full body bath to include a temperature check and sanitiser to install at the entrance of each settlement. Hand sanitising stations are also being installed at key strategic locations within the settlements. Community committees monitor these installations and ensure they are operational. These committees are responsible for storing excess sanitiser/soap for the installations and monitor their use. The committee decided to build a boom gate (similar to a security gate) near the installation at the entrance to encourage all to enter and exit via this gate to protect the communities. A secondary aim of our work is to ensure public health messages are appropriate for the displaced communities. This includes working with community health workers who have been trained by the government, designing posters and other means of communication to ensure that Covid-19 messages are relevant, and training for health workers on clear messaging. Further, we are designing messaging for children living in the settlements so they have some understanding of the impact of the virus.

To ensure the measures are sustainable, we are working with the IDPs to train them in developing entrepreneurial skills. Trainers from ZEGU are planning sessions in making masks and sanitisers/soaps that can be sold as community-based small business enterprises to earn an income and support others in protecting themselves against Covid-19.

As we develop strong networks and links with the IDPs, we have been encouraged by the enthusiasm that the community has shown with these activities. With limited support from government agencies and other organisations, this marginalised group has learnt to be self-reliant. The installations, training and health messaging on Covid-19 has enabled them to be part of a process where they feel empowered in trying to protect themselves and the wider community. Many are keen to start their own business in making and selling masks and sanitisers/soaps to generate an income and play a part in protecting each other. There is a strong sense of purpose that has engaged them and they are determined to ensure the measures are sustained after the project ends. We, as the project team, have learnt that to be successful in this type of work, IDPs must have ownership of interventions and actions which impact their lives. Collaboration and agency are critical and we urge charities, NGOs and policy makers to form partnerships with IDPs representatives and committees to work together as we all fight the devastation caused by Covid-19.

Dr Juliet Thondhlana is an Associate Professor in Education and Migration in the School of Education

Dr Roda Madziva is Assistant Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy

Professor Evelyn C. Garwe is Pro-Vice Chancellor at Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University

Dr Godfrey Chagwiza is ZEGU lead and member of Covid-19 research team in Zimbabwe

Dr Julita Maradzika of the University of Zimbabwe lead member of Covid-19 National Risk Communication Task Force

Marck Chikanza is national co-ordinator of the National Age Network of Zimbabwe

Dr Moses Murandu is a member of the Faculty of Education Health and Wellbeing, University of Wolverhampton

Dr Jalpa Ruparelia is a research fellow in the School of Education, University of Nottingham

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