The COVID-19 crisis is connecting us as a global community despite the closure of borders, the local lockdowns and even situations of self-quarantine.
I’ll start with my personal story:
Today is Day 5 of my self-quarantine since returning from Apia, Samoa on Wednesday evening. We have adjusted as a family and I am grateful for the space we have in our home that enables us to have clear boundaries, my exercise equipment, a large garden and the luxury of catching the glimpse of the ocean from my front porch.
The 5 days of flights being cancelled, re-scheduled, cancelled and then finally confirmed were filled with anxious hope. I was grateful for our friends who provided us with a home and home cooked meals but at the same time the uncertainty of the times and the need to keep searching for answers were certainly draining. Lucky for me, I work remotely so I did not have to change much in the way I work.
Now I work even harder keep a regular daily schedule including keeping an eye out for the daily COVID19 surveillance check from the health and security team.
Pacific Island realities:
Those 5 days made me also think about how the Pacific Island community can come together in solidarity, reaching out beyond the borders to share information, ensure coordination of relief and recovery.
I also feel that the growing use of militarisation language in the response of COVID19 actually deviates from the focus on the need to enhance human security and conflict prevention – whether in the home or community level in line with the Boe Declaration which was adopted by Pacific heads of states in 2018.
Communicating our Pacific Island Priorities:
Providing regular, official information, in particular from the World Health Organisation has been key for me in my role as the Technical Adviser of the Shifting the Power Coalition (https://mtouch.facebook.com/pg/shiftingthepowercoalition) for our members and their networks as well as our regional and global allies.
We have also supported the Feminist Policy Response recommendations of the Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR) but what is also important is the reality of Pacific Island women in the context of COVID19.
We have distinct community arrangements in traditional villages and extended families. Just as online information creates a global village, we also rely on inter-personal communication in village and community gatherings. We live in small islands where the Pacific blue ocean surrounds us. We are also part of a region with one of the highest rates of violence and lowest rates of national and local representation in decision-making.
But we have the solutions as well.
Members of the Shifting the Power Coalition (StPC) from Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, as well as Australia recognises that gender is an important risk factor in all health emergencies. There is generally increased incidence and fatalities among women due to their caring roles. Additionally gender roles (e.g. the work women and men do, and the locations they spend most of their time in) influence exposure, including nature of exposure, frequency and intensity and this need to be analysed. Gender inequalities also influence access to healthcare, resources and information all of which play a role in prevention, early intervention and treatment.
Women as First Responders:
Humanitarian responses have traditionally been controlled by male-dominated international bodies, leaving little space for women in affected communities to lead. As a result, women’s rights and needs are rarely prioritized in their response. Therefore, women don't just need to be engaged. They can lead risk communications and awareness raising with their extensive networks in communities and existing outreach strategies.
Support Women-Led Innovation and Initiatives:
On 13 March 2020, key members of Women Wetem Weta (Women’s Weather Watch or WWW) worked closely with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health (MoH) to develop an SMS in the local language Bislama. The message, in simple non-technical language, was sent to more than 77,148 people on five islands across the Digicel mobile network – directly reaching more than one quarter of the Vanuatu population with the message ‘Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections. Frequently wash hands with soap and water. Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing’
Protection with Dignity is Key:
Stigma of infection is a major issue that needs to managed. In terms of immediate protection risks, there is concern expressed specifically that the identification of those who are tested or infected puts them at safety risk. There are already cases that public disclosures have resulted in vilification including via social media.
There is an urgent need for targeted strategies for community-based protection mechanisms. National research shows rate of lifetime experience is high in Tonga (79%), Samoa (76%), Kiribati (73%), Fiji (72%), Vanuatu (72%) and Solomon Islands (64%). The immediate protection threat including the impact of isolation policies must focus on addressing the potential for women and girls to face increased levels of violence.
Information and Communication must be Appropriate and Accessible:
We are aware that outreach to remote communities that do not have access to more traditional media is a critical priority as there is low or no awareness in some locations. Messaging also requires adaptation into local languages and contexts as a number of the global terms are not easily understood (e.g. social distancing). Women must be engaged in development and design of risk communications and awareness. Women's networks are ready to lead on in collaboration with Ministries of Health and response coordination teams.
Responses must be Disability Inclusive:
Messaging around social distancing is challenging for some groups of women with disabilities, particularly those who are visually impaired or require 24 hour caring. Response actions require sensitivity as well as targeted communications and engagement with these groups
The Shifting the Power Coalition brings together the leadership of 13 women leaders from across 6 Pacific Island countries to share experiences, collaborate and amplify recommendations so that more diverse Pacific women’s voices, agency and decision-making informing disaster preparedness, response and recovery at national and community level. ActionAid Australia as a women’s rights focused humanitarian organisation supports Coalition members to engage in the humanitarian system. Drawing on the technical expertise of ActionAid Australia, the Shifting the Power Coalition has developed an Emergency Response Grant to support women led and support local women’s leadership in response to an emergency
To find out more and how you can support women-led responses in the Pacific Island region E: [email protected]
And now back to my story.
I have previously organised responses to several crisis situations – political upheavals, military coups and category five cyclones but now we are all learning with COVID19.
Just over a year ago I was in Vanuatu working with leaders of ActionAid Vanuatu’s Woman I Toktok Tugetha network to establish their Woman Wetem Weta network. How uplifting it is to see how they continue to embrace the network to amplify messages that inform and empower women in local village communities at this time!
As communicators we need to ensure now more than ever that information is inclusive and factual, it assists in building communities at a time of isolation and uplifts solutions no matter how small or how local.
And let our communication platforms play a crucial role in strengthening peace, security, and social justice at this time - social media and digital platforms, in particular must be used to convey trustworthy information and stories of courage and hope.