On 20 February, Italy recorded its first case of COVID-19 in the northern town of Codogno.

The virus spread at an alarming rate. In a matter of weeks, Italy went from a handful of cases to the second highest in the world. Today, the United States has the highest case and death toll.

“For people in Italy, coronavirus is like being in shock,” says Cheikh*, a moderator for the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee.Info, an information-sharing platform. “You don't really understand what is happening to you, and what will happen tomorrow.”

Against the rising tide of coronavirus, the IRC has been sharing information for refugees and asylum-seekers in Italy using the Refugee.Info platform
Photo: Daphne Tolis/Refugee.Info

Refugee.Info is part of the IRC’s Signpost project, which utilises social media and digital platforms to get critical information to crisis-affected populations around the world. Cheikh and fellow moderator Henry* are concerned about the impact that COVID-19 and lockdown measures are having on refugees and asylum seekers living in Italy and Europe.

“Refugees who have neither work nor a home, often living in close proximity in places that are more exposed—if they don't get the right information on how to protect themselves, it will expose them to infection, and it will spread to people they are living with,” Cheikh says.

“It is really important that people have information they can process and understand from sources they trust”

The Refugee.Info team acted quickly in the wake of initial reports, posting their first blog providing crucial guidance on the virus on 24 February. Like everything posted on the Refugee.Info platform, all the information was meticulously checked and verified.

“It is really important that people have information they can process and understand from sources they trust,” Cheikh emphasises.

The post was also published on Refugee.Info’s Facebook page, where it reached over 70,000 people - an online community of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants living in Italy.

Over subsequent weeks, the Refugee.Info team worked tirelessly to provide much-needed information on coronavirus. Cheikh and Henry personally responded to comments and worked to dispel rumors and combat misinformation - as widespread as the virus itself.

Even before the virus had cemented its grip in Europe, the World Health Organization had warned of the coming “infodemic,” an “overabundance of information” circulating on social media and news outlets. Elena, a colleague of Cheikh and Henry, cites a number of examples: a fake letter circulated on WhatsApp threatening landlords with seven years of imprisonment if they collected rent from tenants; a report claiming that citrus fruit could cure the disease.

“If people don't have accurate information, or at least information they can process and understand from people they trust, they will get even more confused, even more frustrated, and will not be able to understand what to do and what the consequences of their actions are,” Elena explains.

Henry, a Refugee.Info moderator, working from his home in Palermo, Italy.
Photo: IRC

Refugee.Info’s work is more than simply sharing information. It is about building trust. “There is always a moderator online to answer questions,” says Henry. “We are more like a family.… We are trying to reassure people. I am trying to put myself in their shoes.”

Henry, who four years ago made the perilous journey from Nigeria, across deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, to reach Italy, has deep empathy for the users he interacts with on Refugee.Info. “When I arrived, I didn’t understand anything,” he recalls. “People were asking me too many questions that I couldn't even respond to. I was just in shock.”

“We are more like a family.… We are trying to reassure people. I am trying to put myself in their shoes.”

Now Henry recognises the importance of Refugee.Info. “I hear the positive feedback from users,” he says. “People really appreciate the work we are doing…it's really working!”

*First names used for privacy reasons.