On a clear evening last week at Sirikat, a busy suburb east of South Sudan’s capital Juba, Mabior Ajoung Akol put on his face mask, jumped on a waiting bicycle and immediately hit the dusty streets.
Akol was not going for a leisurely bike ride, he was instead on a mission to raise awareness on the Coronavirus pandemic in his community.
“I’m trying to dispatch information about Coronavirus and how people in my community can protect themselves from the lethal pathogen,” said Akol.
Armed with a bicycle and a car battery-powered loudspeaker, Akol traverses his neighborhood to convey pre-recorded messages about COVID-19 and how it can be prevented.
“The community is happy with us,” 32-year-old Akol told Xinhua on Sunday. “When they meet us on the streets, they stop to ask questions about coronavirus.”
As countries globally race to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of youth in South Sudan have devised a unique way to tackle it — using bicycles to raise awareness and counter rumors and myths surrounding the disease.
Using their trademark Blue Messenger Bicycles, volunteers ride in markets, busy streets and residential areas to communicate preventive measures against the coronavirus.
“To me, information is like food which everyone needs daily, ” said Akol.
The ministry of health on April 5 confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in a United Nations (UN) staffer who arrived in the country on February 28 from the Netherlands via Ethiopia.
The number of cases has since risen to four, prompting authorities to take drastic preventive measures including; imposing night-time curfew, closure of schools, businesses, religious institutions and borders, and halting international and domestic flights.
The government in Juba also issued a 14-day ban on interstate or intercity movement.
Daniel Atem, Programs Director of Voice Post, a local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that initiated the Blue Messenger Bicycles project, said they came up with the idea to bridge the information gap between remote communities and authorities tackling the coronavirus.
“Radio is the main source of information in South Sudan but with the current health crisis, not everyone can afford and listen to the radio consistently. That is why we are using this simple way to pass information,” Atem said.
He said the project began with two bicycles, but many volunteers have come on board to donate additional two-wheeled machines.
The most recent one being the ministry of health which provided 15 bicycles to the youth group.
Atem chose to use bicycles because they are cheap to operate and can also access hard-to-reach areas given South Sudan’s poor transport infrastructure.
“Information is power, so I’m looking at health perspective and also looking at how to expand it to other behavior change communication strategies like conflict, peace, and reconciliation messaging,” Atem said.
He said the initiative also seeks to fight rumors, misinformation and online incitement that emerged after the country confirmed its first COVID-19 case.
“Misinformation can cause deaths and that’s why I was inspired to act whenever a need arises. I believe rumor can be addressed through the rightful information,” Atem said.
“We need to engage our communities to change their behavior towards positive thinking and lifestyles,” he added.
There have been growing cases of rumors, misinformation and anti-foreigner rhetoric in South Sudan since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country, with some social media users claiming the UN imported the disease into the world’s youngest republic.
Emmanuel Lobijo, executive director of Junub Open Space, a local organization that is part of the Blue Messenger Bikes project attributed the rise in hate crime to the absence of reliable sources of information in the country.
Lobijo said his organization is helping to track and verify information shared online and report to social media sites those deemed to be carrying hate speech or xenophobic messages.
“We verified more than 100 Facebook posts carrying hate speeches on the first day the coronavirus was confirmed, most of them were incitement against foreigners. We reported them to Facebook and most of those posts were brought down by Facebook,” Lobijo said
He said that his organization has also launched an online and mobile-based campaign dubbed Hagiga Wahid (meaning one truth), which allows the public to share information by either texting or calling the digits 228 and get it verified instantly.
“The fight towards ensuring our community is COVID-19 free needs a lot of efforts from all corners and as of now a lot of hate speech misinformation and fake news have taken over, b