Situation Report
Type of calls (source: ETS)
Type of calls (source: ETS)

Accountability to affected people in the time of COVID-19

Throughout the month of Ramadan, Wedad Talha, supervisor of the Emergency Telecommunication Sector (ETS)-managed call centre in Tripoli supporting Libya’s response to COVID-19, has found herself working the iftar shift. After a day of fasting the thought of starting work and having to manage stressful situations is not ideal yet this window between 4pm and 9pm is when most calls are received. And Wedad needs to be on hand to answer them.

“It’s hard as you can’t really take a break as it’s an emergency so I just try and break my fast quickly…[but] we are working for people who need your help. When they are really in need and we can solve the problem, that makes me feel very happy,” explains 23-year-old Wedad who joined ETS’ local partner as an intern just last year.

Systematic information sharing, and diverse and inclusive participation that ensures people’s voices inform decision making, has traditionally been limited in Libya, with remote and semi-remote management of humanitarian operations impacting engagement. However, in February 2020, a Common Feedback Mechanism (CFM), through the national call centre in Tripoli, was established. Managed by the ETS, the call centre reflected the humanitarian community’s commitment to ensuring humanitarian action was accountable to communities they served, and that mechanisms were in place to improve transparency and allow people to shape the assistance they received.

Initially established as a two-way communication platform between humanitarian responders and affected communities, the centre now also operates as an official coronavirus hotline, at the request of the country’s National Centre for Disease Control. Since then, the lines have been flooded with calls.

“In the first two weeks of the outbreak in Libya, people panicked a lot and we were receiving a call every 11 seconds. It was a lot of pressure. They didn’t understand what the virus was exactly or transmission methods so there were a lot of questions about how to prevent [the spread] and how to self-isolate,” says Wedad. “Most hospitals had closed and weren’t accepting any patients as they were afraid of the virus. So when people called asking what hospitals were available, we did our own research and often managed to connect them with doctors who were providing consultations online,” she explains.

Like many other cities around the world, strict lockdown measures were tough and working from home was often made harder by the lack of electricity and water. “We couldn’t get internet or phone coverage at the call centre so we were struggling with that,” Wedad explains. Now, all operators have their mobile phones connected to the system from home so they can continue to operate 24 hours a day.

Calls from people in urgent need of assistance also continued to come in, many upsetting. “A couple of weeks ago I received a call from lady who had just lost her husband and has been displaced from her house because of the war. She told me if she didn’t need humanitarian assistance she wouldn’t call as she used to have everything I needed. There was a lot of crying which really affected me,” says Wedad. “I was able to refer her to the relevant agency to register for assistance but also felt an affinity with her as I also couldn’t live in my house for the same reason. We are all in the same boat.”

Gratitude from callers is also received, something that inspires and drives operators to continue their work. “People who managed to call to register for assistance often call back to thank us. For COVID, especially in the early days, we received a lot of potential cases and collaborated with the NCDC in Tripoli to refer all cases and we followed up by calling every two days to check up on the patient,” explains Wedad.

There is renewed hope that the situation will ease in the coming weeks. “People like to talk and in Libya, people like to talk a lot so the provision of the call centre lets them talk freely about their problems and things they need. We help them by listening, supporting and comforting them. When they call they are panicking and asking about COVID or for assistance and so being there for someone in their distress is a privilege,” Wedad says.

Since its establishment in February 2020, the CFM call centre has received more than 14,000 calls. While limited in the first days, given limited awareness raising to allow systems to be tested, calls sharply increased at the end of March when it became Libya’s COVID-19 hotline – going from 50 calls between 16-21 March to nearly 3,700 calls the next week.

The majority of calls (95 per cent) answered have been COVID-related, with people requesting information, such as what the pandemic is, how to protect themselves and what to do if someone has symptoms. Of those callers reporting symptoms (around 18 per cent of all answered calls), those that reported COVID-related symptoms were referred to the NCDC for follow up. In the last month, callers seeking information has reduced which may point to increased availability of information through other platforms, such as social media and television.

Geographically, most calls (around 87 per cent) have come from the western region of Libya. This may in part be due to the emergence of the pandemic in Tripoli and to the greater presence of international humanitarian partners operating in the region, who have been providing awareness materials along with distributions that advertise the call centre number. Of all calls received at the call centre, women account for only one third of all callers, reinforcing the need to find ways to make these types of feedback mechanisms accessible to all segments of the population in Libya. 

While the number of non-COVID-19 calls has remained relatively small, since mid-April the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic has caused an increase in these calls. Since 12 April, the majority of these calls have been in relation to food as well as cash (31 and 34 per cent respectively).

CFM continues to improve its reporting tools in order to improve analysis and enable a better understanding of the needs on the ground in order to support better informed programming decisions for the humanitarian community. The impact of curfews and movement restrictions because of COVID-19 mean operators have been working from home, but there is another challenge: funding is urgently required, as the limited numbers of operators have struggled during the busiest call periods (afternoon and evenings), meaning not all calls received are able to be answered. With the needed funding, the CFM can expand its operator base and ensure there is always someone there to pick up the phone when information is needed.