Using risk communication to fight Covid-19

It seems the Coronavirus will keep on punishing us till we learn our lessons to fight it right. The jury is still out on the whats, the whys and the hows of the current wave of the Covid-19, but there is a unanimity that the Coronavirus is going to terrorise us for a long time. We will have to step up our efforts to wage against the virus a high-intensity war in the short-run (of a few years) like the year gone by and thereafter a low-intensity war for all times the way we tackle the endemic disease of flu year after year.

We need to continue to do what we are doing now, but do it more, faster and better to protect ourselves and people around us. More so, since medicines and hospital beds are in short supply. It may not be our doing, but we are responsible for ourselves.

“Consistent use of masks, hand hygiene, ventilation, social distancing continue to be our best guards even today, and should be strictly followed, even by people who have already been vaccinated,” emphasises Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, in a recent press note posted on the website.

Unfortunately some people have vaccine hesitancy and most people do not seem to be following Covid-Appropriate Behaviour or CAB this time.

While 90% people are aware of the benefits of wearing masks, but only 44% are complying. The reasons include breathing issues, discomfort, inconvenience and a belief that mask wearing is unnecessary if social distancing in maintained, according to a survey by ApnaMask, an initiative by EkDesh, a Bengaluru-based NGO. Even many of those who are wearing masks are not doing it appropriately.

Similarly, a lot of people would like to believe unsubstantiated claims that consuming immunity boosting foods and medicines is an option to ensure safety during the pandemic. Besides, negative messaging from maskless electioneering politicians and crowds in religious gatherings is not helpful either.

But what is heartening is that people are willing to listen to reason.  A survey, ‘Covid-19 – The Way Forward’ by GOQii, a fitness technology company, of 11,000 respondents found out more than 43 percent were unsure about taking vaccine and would decide after getting convinced about its effectiveness.

Since people are open minded, the government should focus on getting right Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE), which is about timely dissemination of accurate information in vernacular languages through mediums people access locally, comprehend and follow.

“The ‘New Normal’ requires us to reimagine our communication interventions to help reduce the spread and negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families and communities,” notes Dr Yasmin Haque, Country Representative, UNICEF, in a report, ‘COVID-19: Risk Communication and Community Engagement’.

Apart from reaching out to masses, the government’s communication strategy already provides for using the influence of MPs, MLAs and representatives of Panchayats, Gram Sabhas, Nigrani Samitis, Mohalla Samiti and Resident Welfare Associations to fight the pandemic. Other target stakeholders include Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMS), medical practioners of all streams, faith leaders and Self-Help Groups, according to ‘Covid-19 Vaccine Communication Strategy’ issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.

Plans on paper include building their capacities in social mobilisation, including risk communication and community engagement,  with the help of customised resource material and orientation at national, state, district and block levels.

The communication strategy has also underlined the crisis management approach in the case of any adverse event following immunisation or otherwise, including vaccine eagerness or hesitancy, protests fuelled by rumours, deaths or reactions after immunisation, and vaccine demands by pressure groups.

Suggested response measures include setting up crisis communication groups, fact checking to counter fake news, using influencers and undertaking media outreach at the national level; developing accurate media narratives, formulating communication protocols from CMOs to front line workers at the local level, and generating positive evidences and disseminating these.

It is high time for the government to translate its intent into action, which may be useful not only to encourage people to overcome vaccine hesitancy, but also motivate them to adopt CAB and remain uninfluenced by misinformation, which makes the Coronavirus more potent.

Though it is easier said than done, yet it is relatively the simplest way to rally people to fight the pandemic in a populous and resource constrained country like ours.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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