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Youth Champions in Uganda on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic Response

Under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI)-funded Malaria Action Program for Districts (MAPD) in Uganda, Banyan Global supports youth champions in giving back to their communities through the Vijana Leo (My Community, My Responsibility) activity. The Banyan Global MAPD team works with the district health management team and community development office in Yumbe town council to support a cohort of 23 young people, selected from each of the 23 villages in Yumbe town council, to play an active role in designing and championing youth-focused malaria prevention and treatment activities in their villages. Examples of their activities include traditional games and sports tournaments, community theater, home-to-home sanitation days, and community dialogues. With support from the village health teams and village council leaders, the youth champions also conduct interactive sessions on malaria prevention and treatment as a takeaway package for activity attendees.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Uganda announced a total lockdown on March 30, 2020, that included several restrictive measures on travel and mass gatherings; non-essential business and communal activities were suspended to combat the spread of the virus in the country. As the Yumbe district is one of Uganda’s border districts in the northern corridor, tight restrictions were imposed in that area, with the Residence District Commissioner (RDC) issuing directions to ensure that all the district entry points were closed and no movement was allowed.

In Yumbe town council, youth run various businesses, such as mobile money banking, market vending, video libraries, transport brokers, motorbike transport, and construction. However, with the restrictions in place, business was not as usual for the youth.  When Yumbe Gender-Based Violence Network (YUGNET) set out to assess the health and financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic within the villages in Yumbe town council, Leilah Chandiru, a MAPD youth champion from Charanga ward, was on the team of frontline community data collectors in a community gender-based violence (GBV) survey conducted by YUGNET during the lockdown period. “Because of the knowledge and skills I attained during the youth training with Vijana Leo, and the experience I gained while mobilizing and interacting with the community, I was selected to be part of the community team conducting a GBV survey in my community,” she explained.  For Leilah, participating in the survey was a natural extension of her work on Vijana Leo: “As a youth champion, I have a responsibility to work with my community, and I was honored to be part of the team conducting the survey even with the pandemic.”

In her remarks during the catch-up meeting facilitated by the MAPD gender and youth team once some of the restrictions were lifted, Leilah mentioned that she became concerned with the increased violence in the homes, increased teenage pregnancies, and increased child malnutrition and neglect in the survey results. She said the survey revealed that these were resulting from limited finances in the home, stress and self-isolation, limited access to health care, and tensions around the lockdown. “I was thankful that the RDC permitted me to collect the data. However, I hope that the data will be used and my village will be helped or else we shall be facing a bigger problem than COVID-19”.

Even with the government gradually lifting the restrictions and extending curfew hours, many young people in Yumbe town council are on the frontlines in combating the spread of the virus, tapping into opportunities to earn by selling face masks, hand sanitizers, and food on the road sides; constantly sharing COVID-19 information via text messages and social media platforms; and transporting goods and people on their bodabodas (motorbikes). As their communities try to adjust to living with the realities of COVID-19, Yumbe town council’s youth population continues to demonstrate their enthusiasm and resilience to bounce back and be optimistic of the new normal.