When COVID-19 resurfaced in the CAR in early 2021, increasing deaths by 44 percent, the World Food Program-led Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) launched its toll-free 1212 COVID-19 helpline in June at the request of the United Nations. the country’s Ministry of Health.
By Elizabeth Millership
The prefabricated unit with the only dedicated COVID-19 helpline in the Central African Republic (CAR) is a hive of activity. When one conversation ends, another begins. An operator jots down her notes, wipes a hand over her forehead, and takes a quick sip of water before beginning, “Hello, you’ve reached the COVID-19 Helpline.” It’s another day in the fight against the pandemic in the CAR.
Calling ‘1212’ is important to people in CAR. It was the code of the helpline used in response to the Ebola outbreak that devastated communities in neighboring West Africa from 2014 to 2016. It is a song that no one has forgotten.
Now, in a country already ravaged by decades of armed conflict, the call center is a lifeline for the four million Central Africans trying to stay safe amid the pandemic.
A team of five operators answer calls 24 hours a day and advise people on what to do if she or a family member experiences symptoms, and refer them to national health authorities in suspected cases of the virus. In the call center’s busiest week, no fewer than 3,000 calls were recorded.
“I chose this job because I want to help the population protect themselves against the pandemic,” says Boguel, who simultaneously became a call center operator and father. “I want to help other families as much as possible – they need to be made aware of the helpline, its importance and the very real dangers of COVID-19,” he says.
“We give advice about the reality of COVID-19, how it affects different people – most of the time we hear that people don’t know how to protect themselves from COVID-19. The information we provide about this disease could save lives,” said Labon, a member of the call center team.
Labon works with the operators and provides technical support to its medical counterparts. “If there’s a problem here downtown, I can fix it,” he explains.
“I love this job – I’m helping with a pandemic that is causing suffering worldwide, as well as here in CAR,” he says.
There are indications in the direction of recovery. Central Africans are ready to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and believe it is the key to eradicating the virus. The numbers speak for themselves – more than half of all callers to the helpline ask about the vaccine, including where to get it.
With a background in pharmaceutical technology and trained to take many calls, Boguel is willing to do as much as possible: “I answer an average of 80 calls a day. I can do more if needed.”
The advice of call center operators is critical to curbing the spread of misinformation, which can be as deadly as the virus. Information provided by operators encourages early disease detection and ultimately helps communities stay safe.
Modiana, the call center coordinator, sees it as a blueprint for issues beyond COVID-19. “Sometimes we get calls about other illnesses. The 1212 number is the interface between the population and the Ministry of Health – the information exchanged is an essential source of decision-making in any response,” he says.
Access to information in a crisis is a topic close to Modiana’s heart – his older brother recently recovered from COVID-19 after a harrowing two weeks in hospital. The experience has strengthened his determination: “The importance of this center is enormous,” he says.
When night falls, the call center team alternates with operators who work the night shift. During a pandemic, when communication can save lives, the helplines never sleep.
Special thanks to the mobile network operators Orange and Telecel for providing voice packets, enabling the free landlines used in the call center.