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How a UN Official Got Out the Right COVID-19 Information from Venezuela

Viewpoint by Gema Cortés

The writer is Public Information Officer, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Caracas. He contributed the following to UN OCHA on June 1.

CARACAS (IDN) – When I arrived in Venezuela ten months ago, access to basic services and products such as food and medicines was already challenging. Patience and good humour were the formula for overcoming the long queues to pay at the supermarket. In a country where local cash is not operational, credit cards, mobile payments and cryptocurrencies are the only ways to pay.

This is not because of COVID-19, but because of a humanitarian situation caused by a prolonged economic and political crisis. Due to the almost 10,000 per cent hyperinflation last year, the exchange rate for US$1 has increased from 18,000 bolivars to 210,000 in only ten months.

Sometimes it’s not clear to me whether Venezuela is a happy or an unhappy place. Somehow it seems both to me. Beyond the hardships that the country suffers, many Venezuelans continue to walk through life and insist on a pleasant attitude.

On the evening of March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is under lockdown, facing the same threat of the virus that is upending life in many other countries. Since the first confirmed case was detected on March 13, Venezuela has cut itself off from neighbours and the wider world.

Subsequently, a nationwide lockdown was enforced on 1March 16. With limited resources available to fight COVID-19, authorities moved quickly, closing borders and shutting airports to try to slow the transmission of the disease. It hasn’t been easy, but with humanitarian support they have managed to keep infection rates low.

A key challenge during this time has been the proliferation of fake news and pandemic-related rumours, often spreading faster than the virus itself. I never thought the timeliness and quality of information could be so vital, helping people make the right decisions to ensure their health and well-being amid the uncertainty and fear related to the pandemic.

In Venezuela, the Internet is a lifeline for citizens, with the use of social media and social networking key to obtaining objective and trustworthy information. But it can also be a source of the exact opposite. In cities across the country, many Venezuelans received false promises through WhatsApp messages: “Stay home, the United Nations (UN) will bring you food.”

In response, some people even contacted UN offices hoping to receive something to eat. A press release was issued rapidly, denying the information, and posters indicating false information were widely disseminated.

Other false messages incorrectly attributed to the UN recommended that people drink hot water or use disinfectants to combat the coronavirus. As the population was afraid, some took advantage to manipulate emotions for their own ends.

Combating this barrage of disinformation is part of the work of the Communications Task Force COVID-19. I am one proud member of this ad hoc outfit that brings together all UN agencies present in Venezuela. We reacted swiftly, massively sharing correct and factual information to help the population to combat the pandemic and dispel rumours and misinformation that came with the surge of fake news.

The team collaborated with key local players, such as journalists, influencers and community radio stations, to disseminate relevant and up-to-date pandemic information and messages of hope and solidarity. Through community radio, social media, television, SMS, posters and messages translated into indigenous languages, prevention messages reached millions of people in the most remote areas of the country.

As a result, people started trusting the UN as a key reliable source of information. We went on to share a Trello platform of communication products for social media adapted to the country, a OCHA’s interactive dashboard and regular situation reports with the public, and they have become some of the main reliable data sources available for the media and the public.

During the lockdown, I had the opportunity to see firsthand a COVID-19 awareness-raising house-to-house campaign in Cuaricao, a neighbourhood of red brick and tin houses perched on the hills surrounding Caracas. I joined doctors and nurses on the front line, and I heard firsthand about humanitarian achievements.

Lockdown, tears and salsa

As I write this, I enter my eleventh week of self-quarantine in Caracas. This strict lockdown compounded with fuel limitations across the country have severely restricted movement in the city and to the rest of the country. Communication groups, coordination meetings and daily activities have entered the realm of the virtual.

Sometimes I feel that the more we communicate remotely, via a myriad of online platforms, the less communication becomes effective. Poor Internet connectivity makes it hard to be heard and hear others. Information and news overload can be overwhelming and impossible to process. When lockdown restrictions are finally lifted, we really ought to rethink how social networking and telecommuting have impacted our lives and what lessons can be drawn.

In my case, most of my family live in Madrid, the epicentre of the coronavirus in Spain, and every day is filled with mutual, gut-wrenching worry. Having close friends and family who have gone through the illness with various degrees of severity and outcome, while being so far away from home, makes me feel hapless. I am spending countless hours on the phone hoping to give support, while at the same time trying to achieve some form of work-life balance, even as my workload has skyrocketed. Still, I believe I should not sacrifice support to my loved ones as a result of the increasing workload.

Despite the challenges, including electricity blackouts, water and fuel shortages and long queues to obtain services, many Venezuelans often still manage to maintain their humour. And the way they seemingly use laughter to manage misfortune is what I love most about Venezuelans.

This attitude towards life and hardship is not dissimilar to how I feel in these times of COVID-19. Being able to reach out to happiness and humour among distress and all-consuming worries is what keeps me going during these challenging times. And maybe the Saturday night virtual salsa parties via Zoom a little, too! [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 June 2020]

Photo: OCHA’s Gema Cortés (right) interviews and photographs a woman in Bolivar, Venezuela prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Credit: UN OCHA/Marrero

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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