By Laman Ismayilova
Coronavirus is continuing its spread across the world with millions of confirmed cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11.
Many countries, including Azerbaijan, united their efforts to slow down the rate and the number of new coronavirus infections. COVID-19 pandemic requires comprehensive action to protect children's safety, well-being and futures.
In his interview with Azernews, UNICEF Representative to Azerbaijan Edward Carwardine provided insight into the measures carried by the organization to protect children during coronavirus pandemic.
"A big part of our work is really going back to the beginning of the pandemic in March and has been around raising public awareness and knowledge about the virus. Particularly, in the basic information about how families can keep themselves save, how they can prevent the risk of transmission, hygiene information and so on. With the support of USAID, we have been doing that through online communication, using social media platforms with a lot of creative public information messages. We are also working with our local partners in communities to get information directly to families to keep raising awareness and knowledge amongst the public about the virus and how to reduce the risk of it being transmitted," Mr . Carwardine said.
"Over the last few months, we have reached literally millions of people through various communication initiatives. I would like to say that at this point this is very important. Coronavirus is still a real thread even in Azerbaijan. Risk is still very high and we could all see that a number of cases had not come down and not reduced yet. I think that it is very important to remind the public that we all have individual responsibility to follow the guideline, to keep our good hygiene practices and practice social distancing when we are in public, to wear the face masks in public areas and also to reduce and minimize our interaction with other people. Our message is right much now that it if it is not necessary to go to crowded places like shopping malls, restaurants, then please do not go. We are encouraging people still to stay at home as much as they can even though it is difficult and to reduce social contacts. This is the only way we are going to start seeing a reduction in a number of coronavirus cases," he said.
UNICEF Representative to Azerbaijan also touched upon the challenges that can possibly await the country this summer.
"Summer is here and people want to be outside, they want to be enjoying time with their friends and families. But if we do not follow the guidance has being given by the government and the health officials then during the summer it is going to be even difficult. We are worrying that people would not be able to have a good summer; they would not go up to the beaches, parks and into the recreation centers if coronavirus continues to increase in the country. So, our message right now is please, keep following these important measures and let`s protect ourselves and hopefully we will soon see the coronavirus behind us," Mr. Carwardine said.
UNICEF has been responding to the epidemic of COVID-19 around the world in many ways in Azerbaijan including providing support to families who are living under the quarantine regulations.
"For example, we have been providing a lot of advising guidance to families on how they can keep their children active, healthy at whether at home and outside. With support from the European Union we have been providing a lot of support around education, particularly for children of younger age under five by providing materials, activities, guidance and advices to parents on how to keep that children learning at home. And it is extremely important during the months we are living under the tightened lockdown. We are also providing psychological support to families because we know it is difficult to be at home for a long period of time with your kids, when they are not at school or kindergarten. We have been working with child psychologists, providing online webinars, online briefing, taking questions and giving advices to parents on how to manage the situation with the children," the UNICEF representative said.
"The other thing we have been doing around education is really developing some very good TV programs with the Ministry of Education for children of preschool age. In the last month, there have been more than hundred thousand children that have been able to benefit from these programs which are broadcast on two TV channels through the week. We are also developing online platforms and even cell phone apps to provide advices, guidance, practical tools and resources to parents around early learning and early child development. We hope that schools will eventually re-open and we want to make sure that there are save places when children do go back. Now we just started working with child psychologists in school sectors to provide them with the right information and skills to be able to help children go back to the classrooms because it may not be easy for all of them to just go back straight into the classrooms," he added.
Moreover, UNICEF Baku office has been implementing a number of youth programmes around COVID-19.
"We have a quite popular basic life skills programme that was running before the crisis. And we ran that through network of youth houses around the country providing training to young people on things like communication, confidence and leadership skills. We have actually been moved that programme into online format so the young people can continue to take part even if it is physically hard to go to the training centers that they went before. We are able to reach more young people and now we have youngsters from educational centers also participating in this programme using online platforms," the UNICEF representative said.
UNICEF Baku offices also successfully cooperates with the Nation Youth Foundation, which has been working directly with young people again using online platforms to really help young people to be active under the quarantine period providing them with resources on how to be motivated and active and home.
"We are also encouraging young people and helping them to play a part in supporting their own families, for example, on how they can protect their younger siblings, to take out some of the pressure from parents during the last few months. I think it is very important that we recognize that the crisis has a really big impact on vulnerable families, those ones who have already facing difficulties before the pandemic. For example, families where there is just one parent, families who have children with disabilities or families where the income is very low. Before the crisis we have a successful social work programme in a number of districts and we have been able to continue that programme with social workers, continuing to support families but instead of doing it face to face now using phone, messaging, platforms to maintain contact with these vulnerable families and keep providing them with support and guidance on how to go through this difficult period," Mr. Carwardine said.
"In addition to that, again, using some of our local partners like the Regional Development Public Union (RiiB), ASAN volunteers we have been providing food and hygiene packages now to about thousand families for a couple of months to help those families who are struggling the most. And we are supporting national helplines that is taking an increasing number of calls from the families facing difficulties and also from children who have concerns and worries about the virus. We have been providing support to these helplines so they have the right information, guidance in order to support these people calling and seeking assistance. That is just a summary of some many things that we are involved in and our work will continue until we feel confident that the thread of coronavirus is behind," he added.
Speaking about new programmes in Azerbaijan, Mr. Carwardine stressed that over this year a lot of work has been shifted in focus because of coronavirus.
"We are doing a lot of work right now directly related to COVID-19 situation. But, of course, we are trying to maintain as best we can our regular programmes. We hopefully want that the virus is behind us and we will able to turn to our programmes things like early childhood development, nutrition support for parents and work we have been doing about promoting inclusive education for children with disabilities and so on," he said.
Edward Carwardine also praised the country`s new children strategy recently approved by the government.
"There has been a new development in country which is really exciting. And we actually guide our work a month ahead. On Children Protection Day, His Excellency President Ilham Aliyev issued a new decree introducing a national children strategy in Azerbaijan, which sets out a plan for the next ten years on how to strengthen the legal framework for children to protect their rights, to strengthen social protection of vulnerable families and support things like early childhood development, how to invest in more early detection of disabilities amongst children so they can be provided with a better care and support and looking on things like children participation, how they can be active in the community. Now we are working closely with the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs to turn that strategy into a plan with very clear actions that identify the policy and legal development, legislation development,” Mr. Carwardine said.
“We are also looking for new programmes, new services that can translate this strategy into a real action and results for children. And through that work we are also working with government to look at what the cost of that work is going to be, so we can be clear about what investments needed by the government and non-government organizations, international partners, private sector and this strategy does not remain just a piece of paper. That is going to be a big part of our work in areas like education, early childhood development, health and nutrition, social service development, youth and adolescent development. As we work on that plan, we will start development a new focus on working years ahead. Next year, we officially begin a new five-year programme here in Azerbaijan. That programme is now being discussed with our government. It should be finalized next few months and it has already set out a vision plan for UNICEF for the coming five years and a lot of that will be linked with national strategy announced by the president," he added.
Edward Carwardine highly appreciated the work done by Azerbaijani government in fight against coronavirus.
"The government has done a lot of work in raising people`s awareness and understanding, trying to support those who are affected by the virus in terms of the healthcare, in terms of the testing programme that has been expanded enormously last few months as well as in social assistance, help that has been providing to vulnerable families. As you know, social assistance payments are increased and expanded because the government recognized that some people would be economically affected by the virus and quarantine measures. Also, the creation of these additional public center jobs for a people who are becoming unemployed as a result of the virus. I think there has been a lot of very good work recognized across the region and globally. Azerbaijan has really made effort to contain virus," Mr. Carwardine said.
UNICEF Representative to Azerbaijan calls upon public to practice good hygiene and physical distancing and follow the rules for public gatherings.
"The fact is that the virus is still with us. We cannot be relaxed about the situation. We all must now take personal responsibility to keep ourselves save, to keep those around us save. I want re-emphasize again a message which comes through government and much supported by UNICEF: People need to follow the measures that means keeping at least one metre distance, wearing face masks in public places, public transport, shopping centers, supermarkets, restaurants. It also means minimizing the amount of time you are spending in crowded places. That is where a risk of catching the virus is the greatest is. So, I would say to parents and families, if you go to the shopping mall or a supermarket where people are not wearing face masks, go to another one where people are following the guidance. If you go to restaurants or tea shops and tables are too close to each other less than one metre, go to another shop or restaurant. Do not put yourself at risk! And to those who are the managers and the owner of these businesses, they also need to ensure these regulations. There are simple things we all can do but they will make a difference. And if we all follow this guidance, take it seriously we will come out of this. The virus will be behind us. Hopefully we will have an enjoyable and pleasant summer ahead of us," Mr. Carwardine concluded.
Laman Ismayilova is AzerNews’ staff journalist, follow her on Twitter: @Lam_Ismayilova
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