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A truck sprays disinfectant onto major roads in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 29, 2020.

Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press

Masks and hand washing may help stem the coronavirus outbreak but in Ethiopia health officials are busy deploying another key resource: women.

An army of community health workers – many of them women who in the 2000s helped reduce maternal mortality – are now trying to stop the disease spreading in the east African country.

In sprawling cities and remote villages this women-led workforce of 40,000 is tasked with improving hygiene, monitoring new cases, and dispelling myths about COVID-19 which has infected over 10,000 people in Africa.

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“The trust (these women) have built through the years will help us reach communities as early as possible,” said Temesgen Ayehu of Ethiopia’s health ministry.

Only 52 cases of the novel coronavirus have been detected in Ethiopia but experts are worried an outbreak could be hard to contain in the nation of 105 million where few people can access professional doctors or hospitals.

As concerns grow about how some of Africa’s most vulnerable will cope, these women health workers are stepping in.

Among them are newly-graduated students in their twenties and educated mothers who have experience teaching reproductive health to families.

CONTAGION FEARS

“The community have known these women and been listening to them for years … They have probably helped a woman when she was pregnant, when she had kids, for immunization. So they already have a relationship,” said Misrak Makonnen, country director of public health NGO, Amref Health Africa.

Thousands of women are being trained to spread awareness about the disease, identify people with symptoms and to trace those who they may have had contact with.

Perhaps the most sensitive part of the job is working with religious leaders to debunk myths about coronavirus which often hold sway in a country where traditional beliefs govern many aspects of daily life.

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“Most people believe that God is going to save them or that traditional recipes can protect them from the virus,” said Yirgalem Eshetu, a 23-year old community health worker in the capital Addis Ababa.

“I don’t challenge them, or they won’t listen to me again. But I tell them to also apply the preventive measures, to practice social distancing,” she added.

The role of these women will be critical but the government needs to be cautious, said Azeb Tesema, assistant professor of public health at Mekelle University in Ethiopia.

“We have to train them, and equip them well, otherwise they may be one source of transmission of the disease … especially if they work on contact tracing and house-to-house health education services,” she said.

“I’m extremely afraid of being infected when I go door-to-door,” said Yirgalem. “But it’s my job. It’s my duty.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, many frontline health-care workers are forced to isolate as they care for patients infected with the virus. See how Dr. Kanna Vela is coping with being away from her family as she treats patients in Ajax and Scarborough, Ontario hospitals.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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