When and where they wear their masks

Press Release

Bumping down the dirt road, passing small impromptu gardens and children jump roping, the thought that we are in the middle of a virus pandemic that’s spread by the mouth and nose would never come to mind. An intense basketball game is taking place in the open court and neighbors are helping one another create makeshift walls for their homes with UNICEF issued tents.

This is the Protection of Civilians camp number three (PoC3) located on the outskirts of Juba in South Sudan, a setting where physical distancing is not possible. The walking space between tents can be as tight as a meter wide and crowded like a weekend market. 

A group of children, aged 6 to 16 years old, sit in a socially distanced circle in a small tukul, a bamboo enclosure with a thatched roof, common in South Sudan. They are dressed smartly, including the white cloth masks they received from UNICEF Hope International.  

“Where do you wear your masks,” the children are asked. They all stare back over their white masks with wide eyes. Lankien Moses (15) boldly stands up and walks to the center of the circle. “I wear it to the market, to church, when I go to the store, and to school.” A girl named Nyaulang Gatnyoch (15) now wants to tell us why she wears hers, “To protect from the coronavirus.”  

Keeping your distance from others is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. When that’s not possible, like here in the PoC3, face masks provide some protection when worn properly. Therefore, UNICEF and partners have distributed over 240,000 masks to vulnerable people in South Sudan.  

“Who tells you to wear the mask?” “Our parents, the church,” they say. “How do you feel when you wear the mask?” “I like,” the children respond in quiet and diligent voices. If the children were trying to be polite or if they are the exception is difficult to tell. An assessment conducted by UNICEF after the distribution of masks shows that half of the population find it difficult to wear a mask. They report breathing difficulties and sweating as their main problems which is not surprising as it easily gets up to 40 degrees during the day. That said, almost everyone or 96 percent of the respondents said it was good practice to wear face masks. 

The teenage shyness starts to fade once walking with a couple of friends to her home, passing posters displaying protective measures against COVID-19 and why to use a face mask. Nyamal opens the front tarp to an area where her extended family sits on a woven mat in the shade, with stalks of corn framing the open space. Her father comes out with a large welcoming smile, but quickly ducks inside. The after-distribution survey suggests that knowledge about why to wear a mask is high, but that it hasn’t fully translated into behavior change.  

When Nyamal’s father reappears, the mask is covering his mouth and nose.  For the mask to be effective, it is important that it is worn properly. Observations in the PoC3 suggest that only 2/3 are using it correctly. The most common mistakes are wearing the mask too high touching the eyes, or too low exposing the nose- or even lower exposing both mouth and nose because the mask is hanging around the neck. 

We are back in the tukul and the children are asked about their mask color preference. “White, I like this,” Nyamal, (16), says pointing to her mask. This was the color of choice for all children asked except for Peter Gatluak, who wants blue to match his shirt. Multiple colors were also the preference of ¾ of the respondents in the after- distribution survey and ideally with tie straps, enabling you to adjust the mask more easily. We all come in different sizes and elastic bands don’t always fit, which is probably why 13 percent of the respondents complained about ear pain when using masks. 

Understanding better how the products UNICEF is distributing are received and collecting feedback from the communities is an essential part of UNICEF’s accountability to the affected communities. The after-distribution survey will inform the design of face masks and UNICEF’s communication efforts to ensure people are wearing the masks properly. 

The mask distribution in generously supported by the Government of Japan, SlovakAid, and USAID. 

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