The COVID-19 pandemic, and the restrictions on movement that followed, highlight the importance of protecting the flow of accurate and authentic information. Amid widespread rumors and misinformation about the virus, protecting an evidence-based dialogue is critical to the fight against COVID-19.
In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the pandemic poses an enormous risk to around 1.2 million vulnerable people in the district – including approximately 860,000 Rohingya refugees living in one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The first confirmed COVID-19 attributed death within the camp was noted earlier this week, illuminating the increased importance of the humanitarian community’s continuing efforts to combat the virus.
In parallel with ongoing health efforts, maintaining a dialogue between the humanitarian community and beneficiaries while maintaining proper physical distancing is a new challenge that requires innovative solutions.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), in close collaboration with government and local actors, began using an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) mass communication tool in late April to disseminate key information and collect community feedback throughout the crisis. Dubbed the ‘COVID Info Line’, the system uses pre-recorded information and messaging through phone networks to share critical information in the refugees’ local language across the camps. The COVID Info Line also allows users to record questions, comments and share concerns with IOM that may be replied to – holding IOM more accountable to beneficiaries.
“The IVR system is another step to strengthen accountability and two-way communication loops with all affected communities – particularly with refugees. Being able to express question and concerns in their own language and without intermediaries allows IOM to tailor its sectoral response to be more efficient,” said Manuel Pereira, Deputy Chief of Mission at IOM Bangladesh
As of June 2, over 26,000 COVID Info Line individual users were registered – leaving almost 20,000 messages for IOM from April 26 to today that range in content from COVID-19 information requests to general updates on the camp situation and beneficiary wellbeing. Considering, on average, one user per family – this represents around 112,000 refugees receiving and sharing information with IOM.
Over 235,000 calls have been made to beneficiaries utilizing 36 messages pre-approved by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC)and Intra Sectorial Coordination Group (ISCG). Message content varies from “Basic COVID-19 Information” such as symptoms and hygiene best practices, to “Testing, Isolation and Quarantine” that provide up-to-date information on Isolation and Treatment Centers, quarantine requirements and confirmed cases within Bangladesh.
While the IVR system’s primary focus is creating an evidence-based information flow that is accessible to vulnerable people throughout the district, its capabilities and scope may extend beyond the pandemic response. Over 61,000 COVID Info Line users received Emergency Warning System messages in the days leading up to Cyclone Amphan. Rohingya beneficiaries have used the communication channel to identify shelter, WASH and livelihood needs that, without the IVR system, would potentially go unnoticed.
IOM is actively working to expand the IVR system’s scope to host community members across the district. While 29 cases of COVID-19 have been positively identified in the Rohingya settlements as of 31 May, over 57,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Bangladesh – with deaths nearing the 1,000 mark. The IVR system’s contribution to the mission’s risk communication repertoire cannot be understated. As the numbers continue to rise, it is paramount to the effectiveness of the response that quality information continues to reach those in need – inside and outside of the camp.