Hélène Papper, head of UNIC Colombia, spoke to UN Geneva’s Solange Behoteguy Cortes about the many challenges and successes that she’s encountered during the pandemic.
"Getting the right message out on COVID-19 can be a struggle, but it saves lives"
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise worldwide, the issue of information is more important than ever: lives depend on it. "Receiving quality information can help us make the right decisions, and save lives," says Hélène Papper, Director of the United Nations Information Centre for Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (UNIC Colombia).
UNIC Colombia is one of the 59 UN Information Centres taking the lead against what the World Health Organization (WHO), has called an “infodemic”.
This proliferation of fake news and rumours related to the pandemic has accentuated a reality that already existed in the region, Hélène believes.
She explains how people in several Latin America countries, including Colombia, received an enticing WhatsApp message recently. "Stay home, the UN will bring you food," it promised…in exchange for personal data. It was false, of course. Yet, it led some people to go to the UN office, hoping to be given something to eat.
At the time of writing, although none of the countries where Hélène works has announced an end to national lockdowns – and some including Colombia have extended theirs to 11 May – some messages posted on social media networks have claimed otherwise, often with conflicting dates and times about when self-isolation restrictions will be lifted.
Residents cross a pedestrian bridge in Bogota, Colombia. United Nations photo: UNIC Bogota
People are afraid
Other messages falsely attributed to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommend that people drink hot water and avoid eating ice cream to prevent infections. "These fake messages also say that even after we’re allowed to go out, everything will remain closed for a year,” Hélène continues: “People are afraid, and some take advantage of this situation to manipulate them.”
To combat this barrage of disinformation, UNIC Colombia has allied with key local players such as cybersecurity branches of local law enforcement entities and radio stations, whose public service announcements are often broadcast from speakers mounted on the back of motorbikes that criss-cross villages and towns where not everyone has access to a radio.
More recently, Hélène has overseen a new collaboration with the global news agency Agence France Presse (AFP). It collaborates with UNIC teams in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia by sharing its fact-checking technology in return for their daily news monitoring reports. "Creativity and dialogue are two formidable weapons to prevent the pandemic and the infodemic from destroying us," says Hélène.
UNIC Colombia has also created a website dedicated exclusively for COVID-19 questions. It offers a "true or false" quiz and educational games. People can also submit their questions on the pandemic through a WhatsApp account that UNIC Colombia created with the support of WHO. UNIC Colombia’s radio teams read them and provide answers on radio shows broadcast on their station, Voces Unidas. Similar work is also done with indigenous communities in their own languages.
Hélène and her team are just one of many UN Information Centres challenging and disproving myths and false information. But having been at the sharp end of this ongoing fight, they strongly believe that targeting misleading content alone is not enough; what they want is a fundamental review of how the internet functions.
This concern has been addressed by the WHO, which has created a team of "myth busters" who work closely with companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.
Together, they analyse search engine results and filter out content based on unfounded medical opinions that could endanger people's health.
The COVID-19 effect
Helène is a young mum, and life is, understandably, a constant juggling act between her professional and domestic responsibilities. Like her female colleagues she lives alone with her child and has no domestic worker or nanny. Her son is six years old and his life, like most of the world’s, changed overnight because of COVID-19.
He doesn't want to leave her for a second. Sometimes, he cries, not being old enough yet to express his feelings otherwise. "He listens to me talking about the virus all day long. Inevitably, it affects him,” Hélène says. To soothe him, she sometimes shares her headphones with him, so that he can listen in during her meetings.
You have to be a mother, teacher, psychologist
“It's a time when you have to reinvent yourself. You have to do everything, take care of the house, be a mother, become a schoolteacher, a psychologist while managing an office and sometimes, tight deadlines,” she adds.
Occasionally, it’s simply not possible to do everything the job throws at you. “We shouldn't sacrifice our loved ones,” she says from her apartment, where she works remotely in three languages under the watchful eye of her son. “That superwoman myth needs busting too.”
Although it can be hard to do so, Hélène tries to go out with her son for one hour every day without her phone and tablet. She is aware that she’s privileged in comparison to thousands of people who are confined to situations marked by inequality or domestic violence.
In Colombia, the most vulnerable people are women, informal workers and the many Venezuelan immigrants and refugees who used to work as street vendors and now find themselves out of a job.
When asked how she foresees the crisis coming to an end, Hélène responds without hesitation. "I think we will have to be creative after COVID and build on the global UN75 dialogue”, she says in reference to the initiative launched by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to encourage people around the world to say what their key concerns and priorities are now, in the Organization’s 75th year.
"After all, even after the pandemic, the world will still be grappling with the issues that the Sustainable Development Goals seek to address, including tackling poverty and hunger,” Hélène adds.
As our long, life-affirming virtual chat between Geneva and Bogota comes to an end, Hélène offers a glimpse into what drives her now, and what is likely to keep her busy once the pandemic is over: "Communication is a struggle,” she insists. “In the process of easing the lockdown, one of the most important tasks will be to ‘detoxify’ ourselves from false information. And to rethink the place of social networks in our lives.”