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“I realized I wasn’t powerless. If prevention is better than cure, I was in the frontline, too.”

Door of House in Cameroon
By Njimafo Tiam Armand

Douala
Cameroon

It’s been almost three years since I graduated from medical school. Until recently, I worked in referral hospitals, including the emergency department of a teaching hospital. This January, I accepted a role as Director of a Community Medical Center, to follow my passion for population health and health equity. Everything was great until March 6, when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced in Cameroon.

The disease was new, and everybody was trying to figure out what to do. I was hearing reports of my colleagues still working in referral hospitals (the only treatment centers in Cameroon), talking about having long shifts, long lines, wearing those astronaut uniforms (personal protective equipment), running to the middle of the danger while everybody else was instructed to #stayathome.

The medical profession was entering a war, and my colleagues were at the frontline of it. As I saw media reports of the number of cases rapidly increasing, I knew those heroes would very soon be overwhelmed. I wished I could help, but I just couldn’t leave my new responsibilities. I felt like a healthy soldier witnessing a war, two months after he left the army: sad and powerless.

Then I looked around me to see how people were reacting to this pandemic. I noticed some were skeptical, turning to social media for answers about the disease. Others were confused and scared, not sure what to do or how to do it. The vast majority were not respecting the crucial mitigation measures recommended by the government. All of that made me concerned, and I decided to do something.

Social Distancing During Outreach

I gathered my new colleagues and shared my concerns with them. They were also affected by the situation. We decided to do door-to-door outreach in our community, to inform the population about this pandemic. Having a doctor or nurse arrive at your door to answer questions you may have about health news is not common practice here. We were hoping these very unusual interactions would help create a change in our community.

After our conversations, families were thanking us. Some committed to washing their hands more frequently. Others decided to stop eating garlic and aloe vera as a way to protect themselves from COVID-19. A shop tenant decided to put soap and water in front of her shop for visitors to wash their hands before entering. The response was unexpected, and I was happy. I realized I wasn’t powerless. If prevention is better than cure, I was in the frontline, too.

In this time of #confinement, many people feel powerless, as I did. They feel like their only role is to sit at home, watch the numbers rise on TV, and be depressed. But at the same time, many people are stepping up. I have seen pharmacy students manufacture and offer free hand-sanitizers; entrepreneurs build respirators for hospitals; primary school teachers turn to online classes to prepare pupils for exams; local businesses turn to home deliveries to support social distancing; or young individuals simply offering to buy groceries for older and isolated people. The field of action is wide, and there are empty seats everywhere, waiting to be filled.

COVID-19 is so dramatic that it affects every aspect of human life. In this context, there cannot be only one frontline; there are many frontlines. COVID-19 took us all by surprise, but those examples show us that no matter our profession, our skills, or age, or our gender, we are not powerless in front of this pandemic. We can all be on the frontline. But that is only if we act now.

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