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Youth volunteers fight COVID-19 pandemic in tribal districts in Chhattisgarh

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Volunteers helping the elderly get vaccinated in marginalised groups and communities in Bastar district f Chattisgarh © UNICEF/2021/Panjwani

Trained by UNICEF in social communication and community mobilisation, the volunteers can now explain COVID-19 appropriate behaviour to the community and are also oriented on the vaccination process

RAIPUR, India: A unique partnership between the Bastar district administration, local youth and UNICEF has created a cadre of over 6,000 volunteers trained to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in India. The *Yuvodaya *initiative, which was launched in September 2020, aims to channelise local youth in reaching marginalised groups and communities.

“This village is my home and its people are my family. I have always wanted to contribute to my village. I have been volunteering with Yuvodaya, a programme by the district administration and UNICEF since December 2020. Yuvodaya is a platform that provides great opportunities for youth.

With the support and guidance of Yuvodaya, we can accomplish many difficult tasks. The whole village feels confident that we can bring about a positive change,” says Buvnesh Bakde, a 26-year-old from Puspal village. Many young people like Buvnesh have been working hard to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Bastar.
Yuvodaya volunteers represent diversity.

While 60 per cent of the volunteers are age 18-25 years, and another 20 per cent are between 25-35 years, there are older volunteers as well. About 20 per cent are above age 35 years, of which some are above age 45 years. Women comprise 40 per cent volunteers and 44 per cent come from tribal communities. UNICEF has trained the volunteers in social communication and community mobilisation. They are now able to explain COVID-19 Appropriate Behaviour to the community and have been oriented on the vaccination process. They have acquired basic digital skills using smartphones as well.

About 5-10 volunteers have been recruited for each village/urban ward. Many of them are selected from Nehru Yuva Kendra sports clubs, a government led youth organisation, and NSS, the national service scheme of the Ministry of Youth Affairs. Volunteers raise awareness for COVID-19 appropriate behaviour and encourage people to get vaccinated. They are mobilising the communities and helping with the vaccine registration process.

Youth volunteers are also supporting the government in various other development programmes such as livelihood, health, and nutrition, apart from their work on COVID-19. They are also addressing issues like malnutrition, one of the most crucial challenges for the district. Volunteers identify severely malnourished children and refer them to the state’s nutrition rehabilitation centre. They also organise cleanliness drives and are involved in promoting sports and fitness in their villages.

This UNICEF-Government partnership began in September 2020 and will continue for two years to ensure sustainability. A key focus of the initiative is to build social capital among communities. Once empowered with knowledge and skills, these young volunteers will be equipped to support their communities on critical issues like health, nutrition and sanitation for a long time to come.

Rural and tribal areas of Chhattisgarh are also facing acute vaccine hesitancy. Volunteers are responding to the challenge by mobilising communities, door-to-door awareness and they are also demystifying the vaccine while dispelling any myths.

In the eight months since the initiative began, over 200,000 people have been reached with information on COVID-19 Appropriate Behaviour and vaccine safety. Over 30,000 people have been vaccinated.

It may be too early to gauge outcomes, however, the state is seeing a lot more inclusion. For example, volunteers are helping the elderly get vaccinated. This group would have otherwise been neglected. They even help in transporting them to the vaccination site if required.

The programme is now graduating to the next level where the district administration is exploring setting up a community feedback mechanism. Select volunteers will be trained to collect feedback from the community on various government services.

Here are some of the lessons learnt:

  1. Involving the highest levels of political leadership and bureaucracy to ensure their commitment.
  2. In order to sustain momentum of volunteers, recognition and rewards can go a long way in sustaining their enthusiasm.
  3. Regular trainings and creating platforms for peer learning among volunteers is extremely helpful.

How volunteers are helping in changing the mindset around COVID-19 vaccines in their community – an account by Lalit Kasturpal

Twenty-year-old, Lalit Kashyap from Kasturpal village was amongst the first to reach the vaccination centre that morning along with two other volunteers.

“Vaccination had not yet begun and there was nobody there to get vaccinated. Close by, a group of about 40 men were meeting government officers such as the officer responsible for land records and the panchayat secretary. The Sarpanch (elected village head) was also present in the area. The officers were processing land allocation for individual farmers.

"We went to them and asked those above 45 years to avail the vaccination facility. We also requested them to share their *Aadhaar *card so that we could help register them. They declined. They were convinced that vaccination causes fever and death. Despite all efforts to convince them, the group did not agree.

"We came to know that the *Sarpanch *had also not been vaccinated. We decided to approach him so that he could set an example for the rest. The Sarpanch agreed and was vaccinated that day.

"Furthermore, in a video message, he motivated people of the village to get the vaccine. On the same day, volunteers went door-to-door to disseminate the video in the community. They also shared it on WhatsApp. This not only helped us dispel the myths but it also helped in addressing fears around getting the vaccine. Because of this effort, about 20 men, including members of the Gram Panchayat and some senior government officials were vaccinated that day. Over the course of the next few days, more and more people were vaccinated.”