Mark Connolly, UNICEF Representative in Honduras, spoke with UNICEF USA's Lauren Davitt about mobilizing young people to share accurate health information; the stigma faced by children and families deported from the U.S. and Mexico during the pandemic; and how educational television is helping children to continue learning while schools are closed in a country where internet access is a rare commodity. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
What does COVID-19 response look like in Honduras and what are the challenges involved in protecting families right now?
MARK CONNOLLY: The biggest challenge here in Honduras is that from an epidemiological point of view, we're flying blind because the level of testing is very, very low, just over 6,000 tests since the beginning, with over 1,200 people infected and very high death rates. With those numbers, it's very hard to know what's going on.
The biggest challenge here in Honduras is that from an epidemiological point of view, we're flying blind because the level of testing is very, very low.
When you find out who's being tested, it's mostly people accessing the health system to die with very, very strong symptoms. So the numbers aren't really informing us, and we're just trying to stay in touch with communities to learn what the greatest needs are.
On the good side, we've been in full lockdown for 60 days. So even without the epidemiological intelligence, the government was prudent to see what was happening elsewhere and put in some rather severe measures. But that can only last for so long.
One thing we've seen in response efforts around the globe is the importance of communicating accurate information. How is UNICEF Honduras reaching children and families with reliable messages about the pandemic?
MARK CONNOLLY: That's probably the most exciting thing that we're doing right now, because as we all know, there's just a huge outbreak of misinformation. In this region, Latin America and the Caribbean, we have found that what UNICEF produces and puts out there — regular media, social media and everything else — tends to be the go-to source, partially because it's not quite as technical as information from the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control, but also because it's with local people conveying the messages.
UNICEF has become the most recognized brand in Honduras for reliable information about COVID-19
One of the big breakthroughs that we've had, is that the private sector here — the coffee producers, the shopping malls that are all closed, the big retailers — they all want their staff and clients to have access to reliable, visually attractive messaging. So they all come to UNICEF for that.
This was a big lesson learned, because in pre-COVID times, we would have to go through all sorts of bureaucratic paperwork to sign a memo of understanding with the Coffee Association of Honduras and all these other slow bureaucratic processes to set up some linear arrangement to do things together. But now that we're in this emergency scenario, they see our material and say, "We want to use it." So they use it, and viewership, readership, all of that goes way up. And we find ourselves probably the most recognized brand in the country for reliable material about COVID-19.
How is UNICEF involving young people in efforts to keep the public informed and engaged?
MARK CONNOLLY: We are one of the countries in the region that uses U-Report. This was set up long before COVID. It's basically via telephone: young people become reporters about what's going on in their communities and what they care about. U-Report is backed up worldwide with a whole survey apparatus, where you can do five questions and, in real time, see what people are believing. That's like taking the pulse of public opinion, but it's led by young people. So we have been very successful in our young U-Reporters sharing all sorts of material and cranking up debates and discussions on hot topics.
[Young people] have a strong instinct to protect themselves. So they are very much staying home and encouraging others to do so. It's very positive. It's not scary.
I imagine that being able to participate in sharing information makes young people feel empowered. Is that what you're finding?
MARK CONNOLLY: Very much so, and to a much greater degree than we ever expected. I think this whole thing about being in lockdown and stuck at home brings out a lot of young people's creativity. It starts up different discussions in the home that usually aren't there. What we find with the young reporters is they just tend to bring a lot more common reason to the discussion. In many ways, they're a lot more practical than some of the adult leaders in these discussions, whether it's worldwide, nationwide or locally, because they have a strong instinct to protect themselves. So they are very much staying home and encouraging others to do so. It's very positive. It's not scary.
How has the pandemic affected children and families that are forced to migrate because of violence and poverty? Are families still migrating during this health crisis?
MARK CONNOLLY: It's very, very complex and it's playing out in ways that aren't so good. There's a marked decrease of people migrating and leaving the country. But the push factors for migration haven't changed radically. Obviously poverty gets worse in times of COVID. In some countries, we're seeing big drops in homicide rates and violence, but unfortunately Honduras isn't one of those countries. With the instability, we're seeing increased violence.
So while families affected by violence are migrating less, that doesn't mean they are staying at home. They're displaced. They go to another community where uncles or aunts or relatives are, so they're moving around to flee violence, just not crossing borders.
Are deportations continuing during the COVID-19 crisis?
MARK CONNOLLY: Yes. Here in Honduras, we have a very confounding variable which we weren't expecting, which is increased numbers of deportations of children and families from the United States and from Mexico.
The planes full of returning migrants present UNICEF with a huge challenge because due to public health norms, those folks need a 14-day quarantine. And very few communities want to take people who've been deported from the U.S. or Mexico back into their communities. So UNICEF has been scrambling to set up 14-day quarantine centers with cooperation from civil society and church groups who have facilities. Then our job with the government is to make them up to public health standards for quarantine.
We have to be very discreet on getting [deported children] back into communities because of the stigma and discrimination. No one wants them if they find out that they were on a deportation flight coming from somewhere north of here. It's very, very complicated but we're getting it done.
What happens when the next plane arrives?
MARK CONNOLLY: The big, confounding problem is, let's say a plane arrives today and we have 17 kids and we put them in a quarantine facility. If a plane arrives in two days with another 22 kids, we can't put them in that same facility. So every single week, we have to scramble to get quarantine facilities set up for return migrants.
And then of course, once the 14 days are up, where do they go? What we're finding is we have to be very discreet on getting them back into communities because of the stigma and discrimination. No one wants them if they find out that they were on a deportation flight coming from somewhere north of here. It's very, very complicated but we're getting it done.
How are children in Honduras adapting to distance learning?
MARK CONNOLLY: This area is a big concern, and we've been putting a lot of activity into it. It's an example of how every community, town, state and country has to know what's going on in its reality before coming up with solutions. For example, when COVID started and schools were closed here, we all went scrambling to the webinars on digital education and global connectedness and online learning and Khan Academy in Spanish, all these beautiful things that are on the internet that you shoud be able to connect to and spend three to five hours a day online learning.
But the vast majority of Honduran children don't have daily internet access. The vast majority of the world's school children don't have that sort of internet access.
The vast majority of Honduran children don't have daily internet access. The vast majority of the world's school children don't have that sort of internet access.
When we saw that connectivity was a problem, we reached out to the national television channels and the two private sector telecoms companies and said, UNICEF and others can get the content up there, but what we need is regular television to have four to seven hours a day dedicated for educational programming, pretty much during school hours. So the head of household can say, "It's school time now," and put on the TV.
Our job was to get the content in there, whether it's Sesame Street in Spanish or other things. The whole purpose there was to keep in everyone's head that there are school hours, that there's a certain time per day where education should be filling some of the space.
As time passes, we're finding that getting more content isn't as challenging as we thought. If Khan Academy out of Mexico and the Carlos Slim Foundation is online, it's not hard for the big private sector telecoms companies here to say, "Can we start putting some of that stuff on TV?"
Of course, we are working with the ministry of education for all the exciting online stuff that we could grow into. But people forget that all the online stuff has a price tag, and low- and middle-income families don't have extra money lying around even to pay their phone bills. So we're sticking with national TV for the time being as the major intervention.
Learn more about UNICEF's efforts to protect children in Honduras.
Top photo: Sisters in Potrerillos, Cortés, Honduras. © UNICEF/UN0231994/Zehbrauskas