Empowering the ‘Takeaway’ Generation in Times of Covid-19

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Fri, 09 Oct 2020 - 07:37 GMT

“Young people do not like many details. They like everything take-away.” With these few words Dr. Mohamed El Kholy, a 25-year-old physician and active contributor in the public health field, introduced the idea of ‘Peercast,’ which was recognized by the UN as one of the most successful approaches to empower youth against Covid-19. 

Launched amid the Covid-19 lockdown, Peercast is a podcast developed by Y-PEER Egypt, the national branch of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s youth leadership network, headed by El Kholy since 2019. The creative and informative project, funded by the European Union, aims to fight misinformation about Covid-19 in specific, and health matters in general. 

Y-Peer Egypt currently has 25,000 volunteers and 450 active trainers in 25 governorates, according to El Kholy, who stressed that the youth—making up 60 percent of the Egyptian population—play a vital role in the battle against the ongoing pandemic and in building a better future for the nation.

What can you tell us about Y-peer and the role you play in Egypt? 

Y-peer international is a youth peer education network in 50 countries, initiated by the UNFPA in 2002 in Eastern Europe. It started in Egypt in 2005, so we are celebrating our 15 years anniversary this year. 

In Egypt, our mandate mainly focuses on sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence, such as family planning, reproductive health, child marriage, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation (FGM). We also work on women empowerment. 

Our work is accomplished through campaigns, such as the women empowerment campaign through which we aim to empower girls and women in their communities, to teach them to fight against sexual harassment, and to become economically empowered and powerful in the society. 

We also have another campaign that focuses specifically on FGM… Lastly, the 10 days of activism campaign works on SDGs and HIV, [addressing] what they are and how to prevent them. 

We work through partnerships on two levels. On the governmental level, we have partnerships with the Ministry of Health and Population and with national councils, like The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, the National Council of Women, and the National Population Council. On the ground, we work in 25 governorates… On another level, we have partnerships with civil associations in the governorates. 

Most of the topics you mentioned are long-term problems and they have been targeted by several initiatives over the years. What is special about Y-peer Egypt?

What is special about us is that we work through an entertainment approach. We do not offer the information academically; rather we depend on interactive education and techniques. 

For example, we have interactive theatrical performances. You sit and watch a performance about FGM; and there is a reflection between the actors and the audience; so the latter become partners in the performance. The audience feels like they are taking part in the performance, which is very effective. Moreover, we work on something called sports for development; we merge information on gender-based violence and reproductive health in sports techniques.

This is why we have been successful in Egypt for so long and we have many volunteers. The youth are happy while working with us; and they are engaged. Moreover, all ages can benefit from our initiatives. 

In the current situation, how do you see the importance of the role of youth in the fight against Covid-19?

In Egypt, the youth makes up 60 percent of the population. They are the majority; they must have a role. If there are infections among this majority; if there is misinformation; if there is a wrong approach of communication, we will all lose as a nation. The youth are the ones who will build the country. 

[With regards to Covid-19], awareness is essential. Young people must have a role in spreading awareness, in correcting misinformation, in helping the elderly. . . . They can also have a big role in supporting each other. 

One of the latest initiatives that you have launched is Peercast, which has been acknowledged by the UN as a successful approach to empower the youth against Covid-19. What can you tell us about the project?

We noticed that there was extensive misinformation on social media platforms; totally wrong information; misinformed talks about some herbs and medications; wrong information about modes of transmission; and stigmatization of patients. So we decided we must have a role in facing misinformation; and from there came the idea of the podcast to fight misinformation. 

We wanted a program where we host trustworthy experts from the World Health Organization and the Ministry of health and Population; and we wanted it to be simple and smooth. We decided it would be in the form of direct question and answer, to avoid any confusion or overwhelming information. 

And why a podcast not videos for example? You can listen to a podcast anywhere. … It also consumes less megabytes; and this important because at the time of Covid-19 [lockdown], everyone was staying at home and using the internet. ... So the purpose was that you would not lose a lot [of your internet subscription], and still you would get the information. 

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How did you select and approach the topics of the podcast to be tailored to your target audience: the youth?

First [we decided that] it would be in Q&A [format] because young people do not like many details. They like everything to be take-away. So we wanted things to be simple, to suit the target group. 

Second, each episode was between six and 10 minutes. But of course, not many people are willing to listen to all of this. So we uploaded the full episode on Youtube; and then we cut it into one question and one answer and put them separately on Facebook and Instagram. This resulted in extensively growing reach. For instance, one question got over 10,000 views, while the episode itself had 1,000 views. 

Third, we targeted the rumors on youth groups or the ones that many young people were sharing. We searched on social media and we put these rumors into questions for the guest to answer. For instance, there was this idea of bathing in alcohol that widely spread among youth at some point; so we asked the doctor about it. And I remember him saying, ‘It will only give you skin diseases’... This allowed us to be very involved in the trends. 

Lastly, we hosted experts who somehow have a simple scientific language. 

What are the main goals you aimed to achieve through the podcast; and to what extent would you say you have reached these goals?

Our main aim was to become a source of real information on the topic. Since the first episode, we found great feedback from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Youth, from our partners—the civil association in governorates—the UNFPA and the EU (which is the sponsor of the project). They were very happy with the product. … Afterwards, we started looking further within the youth communities to expand our reach. Another goal was to reach this strata, and we have managed to achieve it. Lastly, I got a phone call from the UN Egypt Communication Office saying that they listened to the podcast and were happy with it and they wanted to write a story about me. They did a story and published it on their website. Two days later, we found that UN global had named it one of the most successful stories to fight Covid-19 in the world. 

Fighting misinformation about Covid-19 was only the topic of the first season. The second season will tackle reproductive health; and the third will address GBV. 

What are the main challenges you have faced?

There are many of those. . . . At the time, there was a lockdown. So the work had to be done at a social distance. I could not go to anyone; and no one could come home to me. Hence, as a host, I recorded all questions and sent them to the guest, who would record all answers and send them to me. Of course, we faced some obstacles concerning the audio quality. … Afterwards, we received all the recording materials; mics, mixers, and so on. Starting season two, the recording will be done on set at the guest’s house or workplace. 

Another challenge is that we did not have supporting celebrities. This [the podcast] is something that we do not have in the community, a source that offers information smoothly and easily; and that is serving the youth. If we had supporting celebrities, the reach would be much higher. Until now, it is not easy to reach such celebrities; but there is better response following the media coverage of the project and the UN recognition. 

A third challenge was the psychological pressure on people at the time. I did not want to overwhelm the members of my team. And I was very happy that we were able, in the middle of pressure and fears, to deliver the work on time with no delay. 

You have also launched other interactive initiatives, such as “Maa’ Baad” and “Y-PEER geniuses.” What can you tell us about them?

Concerning Maa’ Baad [Together], we were following social media extensively across all governorates. We noticed that the youth was under a lot of psychological pressure. We decided, along with the Egyptian branches of IFMSA [The International Federation of Medical Students Associations], IPSF [International Pharmaceutical Students Federation], and IADS [International Association of Dental Students], to do something that supports youth and helps them cope with the situation. We tried to create tools to make them happy; such as webinars; online psychological support sessions; and articles about what could happen to them if they did not express themselves; hosting parties on social media. … all kinds of activities to provide healthy psychological awareness to the youth. 

As for Y-Peer geniuses, we saw that young people needed to do more; not just listen to information but take a step and be part of activities. Under lockdown, there was not much of a chance for them to take part in activities, so we created entertainment activities for them. Y-peer geniuses is an information competition between the teams of governorates. Each team provided four competitors who are knowledgeable about population issues, Covid-19, general information, and everything including sports, arts, history. … The final award was the Y-Peer Geniuses Cup. The competition was held online via Zoom; and it was very entertaining and created great vibes. 

Are there other activities about Covid-19 that you would like to tell us about?

We started with a Facebook frame called ‘Stay at Home.’ This was a very important frame. The whole network, within one day, changed their profile picture into that frame, which sent a strong message at the time when people were not serious about staying at home. Within one week, 1,057 people had used the frame. 

We also created the ‘Safe Hand Challenge.’ The idea was that the youth themselves would create videos for health awareness, such as the correct way to wash hands, how to use the alcohol, how to wear masks. It was very efficient, as we launched it one week after the declaration of Covid-19 in Egypt. It reached almost 250,0000 people; and it included 175 awareness videos in 25 governorates. The youth was very committed; and all videos were reviewed before publishing. 

How did you keep your motivation and that of your team at the tough times of Covid-19?

Meetings, meetings, meetings… [I used to] remind them about our social responsibility role and to tell them let’s not be the ones who are afraid; let’s be the ones who reassure people. We also created competitions among governorates, announcing—for instance—that the best governorates in terms of likes and shares would be rewarded. 

We also created a Ramadan competition, along with the Population Council, Itigah, and the Love Matters platform. We posted daily questions on all our social media platforms; and young people received valuable awards, such as headsets, flash memories, computer accessories, cameras. We also made sure that they were things they could enjoy at home. This created a sense of competition and positive energy among young people. 

Now let’s focus on you as a physician and a leader with great contributions in the development field at such a young age. What is your story?

I have been working in the development field since I was a sophomore [at the Faculty of Medicine, Al-Azhar University]. I noticed that the public health sector was one of the most important sectors that are neglected and that can have a great national impact if we work on its development. Public health is one of the most important sectors; and unfortunately most doctors select their specializations and do not consider their social responsibility role with regards to public health awareness. … If our population becomes aware, we can prevent a lot of diseases; we will follow a healthy lifestyle; we will do sports. 

I have been interested in the public health sector since I was a sophomore. I met with Dr. Amr Hassan, who was working at Misr Foundation for Health and Sustainable Development, on programs about healthy nutrition for school kids, and on spreading awareness on women health through ‘You are the Most Important’ (Enty El Aham) initiative. 

At my fourth year of college, I became an intern at the UNFPA. Afterwards, I became the coordinator of Youth-Friendly Clinics (YFCs), which provides a space for youth and teens to be aware about general health, reproductive health, family planning, and so on. Then, I became a humanitarian field coordinator at the UNFPA, working with the Ministry of Health and Youth on health awareness in youth centers for Syrian refugees…. The project was a great success. 

I started leading Y-Peer Egypt in 2019; and we won the first place in the annual international competition among the 50 other countries in the network. 

Now I work as health program manager at the Shehab Foundation for Comprehensive Health Development. This is of course a great milestone in my life. 

I started this career out of a conviction and faith that the public health sector in Egypt is one of the most important sectors that physicians should consider as a career. 

What are you working on right now, as Y-peer Egypt?

Season two of the podcast; and online theatrical performances about GBV. We also have the 15 years celebration, with a lot of surprises. 

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