Effective communication on Covid-19 could save lives – but India’s strategy has been flawed

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Over the past decades, public health emergencies around the world have shown us that a timely and effective risk communication plan could help minimize fatalities and manage situations on the ground. In unprecedented circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the establishment of effective means of communication becomes even more necessary.

At the start of the pandemic, it was essential that the Union government use all means to make the public understand the gravity of the situation. To do this, several communication plans have been developed to maximize efficiency while minimizing losses.

Over the past year and a half, the government’s plan for effective communication has been riddled with botches and resulted in very little achievement.

Message not clear

Let’s start with the “Janta Curfew” and “Taali, Thaali Bajao” initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Just as the situation started to deteriorate, this mega home event reduced the severity of the problem. Many people treated it like it was a festival, oblivious to the risk. The unclear message about why to stay home created massive confusion.

It had its own set of consequences. In various cases, the curfew ended with large groups of people gathering to clap / ring the bells. It was not a desired outcome. The lack of clarity in the communication on the intention of the need to practice social distancing did not take into account the seriousness of the problem.

On April 2, 2020, the Center launched Aarogya Setu, an official smartphone app for contact tracing, mapping and self-assessment. The request was made necessary in order to encourage “community-led tracing” and to help authorities limit the rate of spread of the virus. While the app was an admirable attempt in itself, its usefulness and data security have always been a point of contention.

India has low teledensity, especially in rural areas. And hence, health monitoring using digital app is extremely troublesome in India. Additionally, the requirement to turn on GPS / and Bluetooth at all times has raised serious concerns about the privacy of individuals’ data.

The concept of “social distancing” was immensely new and alienating to most people in the country. There was a barrage of messages on every channel urging people to practice it, but none of them explained what it was or why we had to follow it. Even the term “quarantine” has never been explained in any communication message with rationality and logic.

People started placing hashtags and GIFs on the term ‘social distancing’ on social media because it was so ambiguous and widely used that they didn’t understand why they were doing it. Not to forget, the term came with a privilege. Hundreds of thousands of day workers returned home during the lockdown – regardless of physical distancing at the time.

Brutal locking

Messages brimming with an urge to practice “social distancing” failed to recognize that it would be impossible for an average Indian to actually practice it with a limited amount of resources and facilities at hand.

The unexpected announcement of a 21-day lockdown did not include the preventive measures that would be taken to care for those who depend on their daily work to support themselves. In addition, the information was conveyed in such a way that nothing seemed to go wrong with the situation.

Lakhs of daily paid workers returned home during the brutal lockdown. Photo credit: Prakash Singh / AFP

On the other hand, states like Maharashtra and Kerala have been successful in providing people with transparent, clear and correct information using engaging and comprehensive communication methods. In the event of a health emergency, communication messages aim to increase citizens’ confidence in the government. However, the situation has turned sour due to a lack of clarity and transparency.

Another essential aspect that was overlooked was the translation of scientifically rigorous material into plain language that could be understood by anyone. Messages from the Union government on how to wash your hands, why it is important, what a virus is and how it is spread and details on pneumonia and black fungus were unclear. People were asked to wear masks, but many did not understand why we had to do it and, therefore, did not appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Lack of inclusiveness

Like any other country, India has marginalized and vulnerable groups – on the basis of caste, class, location and employment. The posters, the images posted on social media, did not address the issue of the inclusiveness of marginalized groups. People with disabilities and working communities such as sex workers, street vendors and day laborers have faced very different challenges from those faced by the middle class.

Of course, the communications they received were not intended for them. Even promoting the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan package on social media made no sense. There was no indication of how this would be carried out or how the poor could access the benefits intended for them. One of the government’s biggest communication failures has been the spread of messages, regardless of the diversity of people.

An early, proactive and inclusive approach to risk communication could have helped to reduce the number of sick people and the death rate.

In the case of India, people were simply told to follow certain instructions throughout the ongoing pandemic, without explaining why they were required to do so. In addition, people receive messages in different ways and as a result, in a country as diverse as India, an inclusive communication strategy for the whole community is becoming the need of the hour.

India should learn to be proactive in its communications strategy, otherwise it will simply try to catch up with the circumstances and fail miserably. In order to respond effectively in the future, it is essential to recognize the importance of a comprehensive communications strategy, otherwise history will repeat itself.

Mehek Nankani is Assistant Program Manager at Takshashila Institution.



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