Guineans have drawn lessons from Ebola, which has killed more than 2,500 people in our country. The country had neglected the disease when the first cases began in 2013 in a forest region around 900 kilometers from the capital. The first victims were not isolated, which encouraged contamination until an effective strategy was developed to eradicate the epidemic.
Strengthened by this experience, we adapted our behavior from the very beginning of COVID-19. The Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire (National Health Safety Agency – ANSS) very quickly established the same system as for the Ebola epidemic. In schools, health kits were provided for the entrance of each classroom. These little buckets with taps made it possible to provide a mixture of clean water and soap for the children to wash their hands. The kits are also offered to families as well as in markets and certain offices. Each school – even the most isolated ones in the interior of the country – was also given the resources to buy a Thermoflash. These thermometers are particularly useful because they make it possible to take someone’s temperature without the slightest contact with them.
The schools have been closed since 20 March 2020, together with the mosques and the churches. The State has established a curfew and quickly prohibited all travel out of the capital to the other regions. All seminars and meetings have been postponed or cancelled. The government set up a skeleton service to respond to the most urgent needs.
In education, one of the most urgent things was to train teachers about COVID-19, following the example of what the education unions did during the Ebola crisis in 2014-2015. The PANAF programsupported us to train the trainers of teachers about the Ebola disease at that time. During the school closure period, teachers from all over the country were trained so that, when they returned to classes, they could give students correct information. This was done in study circles of a maximum of ten people. Those who took part in one circle could multiply the training with others. When the schools reopened, every primary school or secondary school teacher was therefore able to explain exactly what the Ebola epidemic was and what to do to protect against it.
We suggested to the Guinean government applying the same strategy for COVID-19: using our trainers and even reinforcing them, because we want to go further than we did for Ebola. We want to be able to raise the awareness of the population working in the informal economy so that they do not contribute to a surge in the price of essential food products linked to the closure of borders. As there is less food available, small sellers tend to increase prices, while people’s income has fallen because of the crisis. We can, for example, carry out awareness-raising actions based on programs broadcast on community radio stations, which are the best means of reaching the population. Sixty per cent of the population is illiterate, so the role of teachers in informing people is crucial.
We have also suggested a reorganization of the school calendar depending on how far advanced the program is when the schools reopen. At the time of the Ebola epidemic, following the suggestion of the education unions, the three-month holiday was reduced by a few weeks so pupils could do some extra lessons to catch up and maintain their level.
Experience has shown us that this type of pandemic has consequences far beyond the health sphere. In the Haute Guinée region, some children did not return to school when lessons started again after the interruption of several months due to Ebola. There was no distance learning. These children started to go to the gold-panning sites to earn a little money. They became used to this money coming in and did not return to the classrooms afterwards. We risk seeing a new wave of school abandonment and child labour after lessons start again following the COVID-19 epidemic emergency.
 The PANAF is a cooperation program for trade unions from Africa (Organisation Régionale Africaine de la Confédération Syndicale Internationale et Organisation de l’Unité Syndicale Africaine – African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation and African Organization of Trade Union Unity – OUSA); Belgium (FGTB); Sweden (LO and TCO); and Brazil (CUT-Brazil). It carries out a project to strengthen capacities using study circles.