In this blog, Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society (PNGRCS) volunteer Mairi Ovia, recounts her experience of engaging with community members on the Covid-19 vaccination in Papua New Guinea:

“In this story I will be sharing my experience of 3-day community engagement and accountability work my fellow volunteers and I carried out from the 10th to the 12th of October 2023.

Community feedback collection was a very interesting experience for me, personally, as I had the opportunity to meet and speak with different people from different places, both young and old, from different backgrounds and with different opinions and views. Apart from our community my colleagues and I decided to engage with people at Unity Mall (a local SME Marketplace), Lareva Market (the main market in the Hohola suburb) and the 3 Mile suburb area surrounding the PNG Red Cross Society Headquarters. As well as that, featured in this writing will be the story of a young man and his siter who are taking care of their other 6 siblings.

On Tuesday, 10th October, on a dull and rainy afternoon, my colleagues and I decided to start our community engagement work at the Unity Mall. Being an SME Marketplace, Unity Mall was crowded with highly educated, middle to high class individuals and groups. Many people, upon hearing that we wanted to talk to them about COVID-19 vaccine, were reluctant to participate but obviously we also found some community members who were happy to talk to us. For the latter group of people, we asked them if they have any questions about COVID-19 vaccine. Among those who engaged with us in vaccine conversation most of the people who had taken vaccine said, they had no choice but to get vaccinated because they needed to travel overseas, and the vaccine was a requirement. For those who were reluctant to get the vaccine, some said they believe COVID-19 was over they do not feel the need of vaccine anymore and some feared side effects.

After listening to their feedback, I wrote it in the feedback form and answered the questions with the help of information education and communication (IEC) materials we were given before engaging with the communities.  

After listening to their feedback, I wrote it in the feedback form and answered the questions with the help of information education and communication (IEC) materials we were given before engaging with the communities. I went through the IEC together with the community members, mostly found the answers to their questions in the IEC. For the questions I could not answer there and then, I referred them to go to nearest health center to get the answers. I also gave the IEC to people who wanted to take those. It was really helpful to have those printed answers with us to answer questions from the community members mostly to explain why COVID-19 vaccine is important and specially to explain vaccine side effects are normal.

The next day, Wednesday 11th October, we agreed to start community feedback collection at Lareva Market. As we were approaching the entrance to the market, seeing us in our Red Cross vests carrying piles of papers and pamphlets, the people were already calling out to us and asking what we were trying to do. As we approached each individual and group, we explained to them what we were doing, at the same time writing their feedback in our forms, answering their questions and issuing them with IEC materials for further information. Misunderstanding us, some people refused to engage with us as they thought we were there to administer the vaccine shot to them.

While collecting community feedback in the market I came to know and realize how unaware many people were of the Covid-19 Vaccine.

While collecting community feedback in the market I came to know and realize how unaware many people were of the Covid-19 Vaccine. This saddened me more than it frustrated me. Reason being that all of those who had no idea what the vaccine was, were elderly people – one of the vulnerable groups of people, yet they had little to no knowledge of the vaccine. Before leaving the market this group of elderly people asked if we could go back again in a bigger group and do an awareness on the vaccine as they felt they needed to be educated more on it.

On the afternoon of the same day, I decided to talk to certain individuals in my community. One of which was a community leader and elder, along with his wife. This elder is also the Chairman of the Law-and-Order Committee in the neighborhood. The elder was very pleased with the initiative that Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society was taking in trying to educate people on the vaccine and nothing to worry about its side effects. He further requested for an awareness drive to be done in the community. The community elder has been vaccinated, however, his wife was yet to get vaccinated. She is afraid to get vaccinated because she has got some underlying health issues and fears the side effects the vaccine might have on her.

After talking to the community leader, I had the chance to talk to a 20-year-old young man who also resides in my community. He is the second eldest of seven siblings born to a local woman from Gulf Province and a man of Malaysian origin. The couple married 25 years ago and had their first child 3 years after marrying. Unfortunately, the mother of these seven children lost her battle to Cervical Cancer in June of 2022. She has left behind her seven children – the eldest is a 22-year-old young lady and the youngest an 8-year-old boy – to live with their father who is unemployed and a foreigner. These seven siblings along with their father live with their late mother’s extended family in her maternal grandfather’s house. This young man and his older sister had to drop out of school to take care of their five younger siblings. Making the ends met is a battle for this family. I thought COVID-19 vaccine was the last thing the young man would prioritize, he pleasantly surprised me saying he actually has got vaccinated.

The last day of our community work, Thursday 12th October, my colleagues, Michelle and Mark, and myself, did the rest of our vaccine engagement in the 3 Mile suburb. Starting in the neighborhood where the Red Cross Headquarters is located, the people were friendly and willing to participate in the conversation.

After we had finished there, we went to the main bus stop outside the Port Moresby General Hospital. The people there were quite ignorant and unwilling to participate in the conversation so not much community feedback was collected. As Michelle and Mark proceeded toward the Shady Rest Hotel, I decided to engage with people at the Susu Mama’s Hospital carpark and waiting area. There I had the opportunity to speak with a good number of expectant and lactating women. Some of which were reluctant to talk, while others were happy to share their opinions, views and concerns about the vaccine.

All in all, my experience, I would say, was one of a kind. Every individual I had a chat with shared, a different story, a different opinion, a different view and a different concern.

All in all, my experience, I would say, was one of a kind. Every individual I had a chat with shared, a different story, a different opinion, a different view and a different concern. Every time I spoke to someone my emotions would vary, depending on what the individual was sharing with me. I found myself being so saddened at times and then frustrated the next moment. For sure this experience was new for me, challenging at some point but most definitely eye-opening and educating. I am personally very grateful to have been part of this project as I have learnt so much from this experience.”

This blog was written by Mairi Ovia, Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society (PNGRCS) volunteer.

Running a nation-wide Information Centre during an Emergency

When there is conflict in a country, emergency responses for the communities need to be put in place quickly. For actors in the field this can lead to new vocations. This has been the experience of Volodymyr Havryiluk and Andriy Maryniak who are running the Ukrainian Red Cross (URCS) Information Center in Lviv, Ukraine.  Volodymyr, coordinator of the info center, has a degree in HR and private sector economy. Andriy, deputy coordinator and Vladimir’s right hand-man, studied history and is a teacher by training. When the conflict started all this changed and they stumbled on this new vocation at the URCS.

For Ukrainians in need for information or help, there is a number on the webpage, Facebook and Instagram of the URCS. On the other side of the call, in the background handling the processes, are Volodymyr and Andriy. With patience and understanding of the difficult situations of both the people calling in and the operators, they work tirelessly to make sure that everyone gets the information, humanitarian aid and help that they need.

A Nation-Wide Information Center

The information center is based in western Ukraine, Lviv. Lviv stands at the heart for people seeking shelter during the conflict. The information center is based in western Ukraine, Lviv. Lviv stands at the heart for people seeking shelter during the conflict. However, the night before the interview alarms were heard also here. 

The center gets calls from everywhere in Ukraine. They then send the requests to the regional offices. “We try to provide only one phone number, one email address. It’s simpler, so that every part of Ukraine can call one number… It’s very hard to remember five phone numbers – one is easier.” – Andriy explains. People also hear about them through word-to-mouth. Volodymyr and Andriy talks about a time when a call came in from a small town in the eastern region. The regional branch provided them with help and suddenly calls came in from all the small towns in the region because word had spread that the URCS was working and helping.

Before the conflict, there was an existing small-scale information center, originally set-up during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the conflict, the requests increased and the need for help grew drastically. Volodymyr and Andriy assisted in expanding the center. They helped finding a place, rented an office and started working. The center, as it is today, was fully up-and-running on the 3rd of May.

The information center is now operated by 14 people, many of whom are themselves Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s). They get up to 15-20 000 calls a week. This is a vast number of calls – do they work 24 hours a day? “No”, they respond. The center is open from 8 am to 7 pm. They monitor the peak times to have sufficient capacity then. For now, having night shifts and work during holidays is not a priority – on the contrary – they need to manage all the requests coming in during working hours. They can currently respond to approximately 30 – 50 % of the requests but are in the process of hiring more operators to be able to adequately handle all the calls.

Photo credit: Hugo Nijentap

Three departments, four lines

All the calls coming in are divided into three departments depending on the request. The first department is an “ordinary” information hotline, the second is for psychological support and the third one is to Restore Family Links (RFL). Calling the general number, you get directed to the appropriate department. A fourth line that handles the requests coming in through email, messenger, and the chat-bot is recently set up.

Today, most requests concern humanitarian aid – people who lost their homes, who lost everything, get in touch. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) ask for temporary shelter, food, and hygiene products. When they return, they may also ask for help to start rebuilding their homes – these requests now come mainly from the Kiev region as people are starting to return there.

Many requests for financial aid also come in– people ask for vouchers and financial support programs. Many have lost their jobs and their income due to the conflict and they need help to be able to support themselves.

They also get many requests to Restore Family Lines (RFL) – there are really many of them, they say. People have lost touch of friends and family during conflict.

Volodymyr and Andriy point out that armed conflict is especially difficult for people with disabilities and older populations and that they get a lot of requests for home care. Knowing how to help is best done through active community engagement.

Volodymyr Havryiluk (left) and Andriy Maryniak (right)

Community Feedback

This information center, at the heart of the emergency response, is an important community engagement hub in Ukraine. Most operators are IDP’s themselves and have been through traumatizing experiences, which makes them well-placed to understand and respond to the requests of the caller. They handle the requests that come in primarily in Ukrainian but also in Russian. The important thing is that everyone feels comfortable with the language they use.

The center gets information about people’s needs in real time. They can then provide information directly back to those who needs it, but they also collect feedback, conduct analysis, and notify the needs to other branches such as the URCS, IFRC and the ICRC. Getting feedback from the community is immensely important, they say, even just to be able to give the right help to each person.

Right now, for instance, there is a big medical emergency in Ukraine. People need access to both medical services and medicines. It’s difficult to get hold of, for example, high-value cancer medicines. Volodymyr and Andriy puts this into their reports so that other organizations can pick it up and hopefully provide help.

Focus on mental health and feedback sessions

Working in such high-pressure environment demands a lot of feedback sessions. There is a weekly meeting where everyone can bring their questions and they are discussed and processed together. At the beginning of each workday, Volodymyr and Andriy do a 15-minute information session to make sure the operators are up to date before the start of the day.

The center also provides mental health help. If the operator receives a very difficult call there is always a possibility to take some time off, have a break, go for a walk, or just think about it. This is important. They also have operators with a diploma in psychology who can help and give professional support in a critical situation.

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)

Photo credit: Hugo Nijentap