Dealing with fake news, COVID-19 and armed conflicts

COVID-19 took the world by surprise and severely disrupted the lives of people, particularly those surviving on the breadline and fearing being driven from their homes by armed conflicts, an international online event held to highlight innovative university civic engagement strategies heard.

Overcoming huge challenges and obstacles during the pandemic, many universities in the Global South discovered new ways of navigating lockdowns and technology problems as well as fake news and conspiracy theories to help those in greatest need during the health emergency, participants in the Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC Boston 2021), held from 30 September to 3 October, were told.

From supporting people trapped or displaced by armed separatists in Cameroon to overcoming people’s mistrust in the government, which meant community dwellers needed convincing that COVID-19 was not just another ruse to stop them leaving their homes, the conference provided an opportunity to applaud inspirational examples of universities working in partnership to solve challenges in their communities.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

And those partnerships created in the middle of the pandemic will prove invaluable as COVID-19 moves to become yet another endemic for the world to live with, said Kevin Hall, president of the University of Victoria, Canada.

He chaired the conference session ‘University-Community Partnership Responses to COVID-19: Reflections on Innovative Civic Engagement’ with the five winners of the University Award for Innovative Civic Engagement supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations founded by business magnate George Soros.

The five successful projects were each awarded grants of US$20,000, with the winners coming from Cameroon, Kenya, Nicaragua, Mexico and Zimbabwe.

Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the Talloires Network, told University World News: “They truly exemplify how students, faculty and leaders of civically engaged universities can partner with local communities to respond effectively to a crisis like COVID-19.”

Health care for the displaced in Cameroon

Elvis Akomoneh, vice-president for institutional advancement at Meridian Global University, Cameroon, and executive director of the Access Care Foundation, told the conference: “The pandemic made a precarious situation worse for people living with poor sanitation and hygiene which made it easier for the virus to spread.”

His university has been working with the Access Care Foundation to ensure continuous supplies of basic healthcare services to people trapped or displaced by the armed conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.

“There’s been an armed conflict for five years with separatists fighting for autonomy and we’ve just had a three-week lockdown and been unable to enter our campus or access public services during this period.

“Thousands have been displaced and are in cities and the bushes and many women cannot access antenatal services, children can’t be vaccinated and young girls are exposed to sexual violence.”

Akomoneh told University World News it was relatively easy to build on the partnership developed at the onset of the armed conflict to respond to the fresh needs caused by the pandemic.

The partnership had been providing households with long-lasting insecticidal nets and pregnant women with malaria prophylaxis, as well as free screening and treatment for malaria and HIV/AIDS and deworming for children. Volunteers also assisted pregnant women in delivery and offered family planning services to young girls.

“During the pandemic, we educated the community on hygiene and COVID-19 signs, symptoms and preventive measures and helped COVID-19 containment by distributing face masks, hand sanitisers and installing hand-washing stations,” said Akomoneh.

A question of trust

Sharon Dione Sumelong, coordinator of community healthcare programmes at Meridian Global University, told University World News: “We did encounter some setbacks with the closure of schools and universities during the pandemic, which led most of our student volunteers to leave for their homes, including health students who participated on our projects as community interns.

“There was also a lack of trust and confidence in the government. The ongoing armed conflict has been prolonged as a result of failed promises and the population didn’t even believe there was COVID in the country.

“This made our work in sanitisation and distributing COVID kits very challenging and the frequent lockdowns instituted by the armed separatists and sporadic gun shots also limited our movement and penetration to certain areas.”

Sumelong said the Talloires Network-Open Society Foundations grant would enable them “to move to other regions where there are internally displaced persons suffering from lack of basic health services and get more youths involved in our project”.

Currently there are more than 30 people helping the project in Cameroon. “That’s about half the number in the pre-pandemic era,” she said.

Food security and health promotion in Mexico

Food security and health promotion were among the challenges facing the award-winning initiative by Universidad Veracruzana and the Veracruz State Department of the Environment on the eastern coast of Mexico, with indigenous young people working with small-scale farmers and university researchers to tackle serious health and eating problems made worse by the pandemic.

Miguel Ángel Escalona Aguilar, sustainability coordinator and lecturer at Universidad Veracruzana, said that despite being situated in Mexico’s largest area of bio- and cultural diversity, half the population live in poverty and there is a lot of food insecurity, which took a dramatic turn for the worse when COVID-19 shut down local markets and only a few stores remained open.

“The virus created a lot of fear, but it also got people thinking about the way they were eating and [how they could] take advantage of time spent at home to create their own green gardens for food production.

“We worked with small groups of farmers and peasants who had always worked the land, but needed support in marketing their produce and felt excluded because they didn’t have access to technology or an internet connection.

“Students had to stay at home and sometimes they could access the internet with a mobile phone they had to share with the family. So creative initiatives were needed.”

Aguilar told University World News that teaching materials were produced in indigenous languages to show how local food production could have a positive impact on eating habits – and with support from the mayor’s office, local markets reopened.

University faculty staff also developed a platform to enable local farmers to offer their healthy and nutritious products over the internet with high-quality locally grown foods delivered to customers’ doorsteps.

The challenge now is to maintain the healthier eating habits with high streets reopening, but with a new leadership at the university focusing on sustainability and human rights, Aguilar is optimistic about the future.

He told University World News: “Social resilience is created from crisis and creative ways emerge from moments of uncertainty such as home deliveries through the food basket systems.

“This has helped the community maintain cohesion while taking advantage of technological tools that were previously unavailable, and generated a feeling of hope that collective action for the common good is possible.”

Mental health awareness in Nicaragua

The importance of community awareness of mental health challenges during the COVID-19 crisis was at the heart of another winning partnership project from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua, in collaboration with municipal mayors and local non-profit community institutions.

“The pandemic created a lot of fear, with some groups more vulnerable than others and some groups better informed than others,” Miurell Suárez Soza, a social worker and instructor of higher education at UNAN-Managua, told the conference.

“COVID-19 added to many other problems of social inequalities. So, we started working with emotional education and emotional health.

“But we were victims of fake news at a national and internet level which limited our action. We didn’t know whether the end of the world was approaching and we had to strengthen our defence mechanisms as human beings in order to deal with the situation.”

Leana Lanuza, internationalisation coordinator at UNAN-Managua, told University World News: “Our initiative was aimed at the bio-psychosocial strengthening of the university community and its environment in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and centred on the importance of mental care and self-care, based on the adequate management of information and collective responsibility.

“We learned to respond to a reality and society that requires strengthening through truthful and objective information and preparing for new ways of living proactively while continuing to face an unknown enemy, the pandemic, that was offering more questions and doubts,” she said.

“Among the greatest challenges were national and international fake news about COVID-19, which generated excessive concern and inadequate responses and mental blocks of the population to the emergency,” said Lanuza.

Hand-washing units to curb the virus in Kenya

Conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 and how the disease could be prevented and cured also played havoc in the rural communities of East Africa, the conference was told by Peter Kirira, principal of the College of Graduate Studies and Research at Mount Kenya University, Kenya.

Kirira is the founding director of the Mount Kenya University Foundation, the charitable arm of the university, and worked with Partners for Care on innovative ways to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and other long-standing health challenges such as reducing waterborne illnesses and preventable diseases by improving access to safe water during times of crisis.

During the pandemic, the university and Partners for Care provided 2,500 hand-washing units in the slum areas of Nairobi and distributed 1,000 water backpacks to 66 primary schools to promote transport, storage and uptake of safe drinking water.

The partnership also stepped up its efforts to treat jiggers – fleas that burrow under the skin – and helped more than 3,500 sufferers in 18 villages. It was also given special permits to reach the vulnerable during lockdowns.

Kirira told University World News that sharing experiences in helping communities facing similar challenges was a valuable way to pick up best practices and he now wants to integrate civic engagement activities within the curriculum.

His university is also using its website and social media channels to flag any misinformation about COVID-19 in a bid to counter fake news.

Now transform the curricula

The fifth winner of the University Award for Innovative Civic Engagement from the Open Society Foundations and Talloires Network was the University of Zimbabwe and the Glen Norah Community Cooperative and their initiative to address the devasting impact of COVID-19 by promoting decent employment and support for entrepreneurship.

Phil Mlanda, a social entrepreneur who co-founded an international non-profit organisation, paNhari, told the conference how they were addressing unemployment by supporting youth-led projects to bring communities out of poverty through business incubators housed at higher learning institutions, including the University of Zimbabwe and Catholic University of Zimbabwe.

“Working with university students is pretty phenomenal,” said Mlanda, who agreed it was time for universities “to rethink the curricula”.

Mlanda said: “Rather than thinking and hoping we can transform societies after COVID, I think the time is right now to begin transforming our education systems. I know the bureaucracy that exists at institutions and that is why we formed paNhari, to circumnavigate the red tape.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at