Since its onset, COVID-19 has adversely affected public health systems, livelihoods and economies, further marginalizing vulnerable communities around the world. In this scenario, community preparedness is imperative to manage risk through the dissemination of accurate information. A socially consistent and informed response to COVID-19 can effectively break the chain of transmission and mitigate the impact of the pandemic, especially in terms of “risk” communication.
Globally, countries including India continue to face challenges and gaps in risk communication during the pandemic. First, the aggressive penetration of cellphones into traditional media has led to significant behavioral incentives in the way people access and trust health information. Second, gaps exist because perceptions of risk and associated risk reduction behaviors are deeply rooted in the socio-cultural fabric. In this regard, communication efforts should revolve around the social constructionist approach with careful assessment of stigma, risk-promoting social norms, and counterproductive decision-making contexts.
Transparent public health messages in local languages, along with clear identification of channels, can provide high impact risk communication. This involves harnessing community engagement, involving local influencers, building the capacity of local entities, and building trust in health and social protection systems. Many Indian states have used existing platforms to provide services during COVID-19, although they have been severely affected by the outbreak.
For example, the state’s Integrated Child Development Program (ICDS) ensured the continuous supply and delivery of take-home rations (THR), using Anganwadi workers (AWW) as a channel to maximize community awareness. As part of the Supplementary Nutrition Program (SNP), Bihar has partnered with the federation of dairy cooperatives to distribute milk in Anganwadi centers (AWC). In Gujarat, Vadodara Municipal Corporation and Manavata Trust have taken the initiative to distribute POSHAN kits to malnourished children (3-6 years) under the ‘Palak Vali’ program. Communities, Panchayati Raj institutions and frontline workers in Kanpur Dehat, UP, came together to identify and manage the registration of migrants for THR services.
These interventions show how effective interpersonal communication through field workers and the collaboration of key community actors can strengthen the fight against a public health emergency like COVID-19. Such efforts encourage uptake of nutrition and health services among beneficiaries during the pandemic by instilling healthy behaviors.
A similar approach can help build confidence in India’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. The success story of an isolated tribal belt in the Melghat Forest in Maharashtra shows how culturally relevant measures can reverse vaccine skepticism. The involvement of local stakeholders such as counselors from the primary health center (PHC), village police officials and the dissemination of messages through videos and a playbook in the local Korku language enabled the community to come together and trust the vaccination process.
Therefore, health and nutrition messages should be developed taking into account the mode of delivery and understanding of the behavioral model of the target audience. There are a few steps that can go a long way in expanding the reach of the community to the rural level:
- Leverage local champions such as PRI, self-help groups (SHG), religious leaders and community health workers to organize regular meetings in accordance with COVID-19 protocols to bridge the knowledge gap between communities and to strengthen local confidence.
- Disseminate key messages on nutrition and health to beneficiaries through the identified set of stakeholders mentioned above.
- Identified stakeholders to engage in benchmarking risk analysis by jointly assessing current and past risks. This would help dispel myths and misinformation, while allowing the public to perceive risk in a more rational way.
- Choose the right communication channels for the target audience, beneficiaries and health workers.
Traditional media continue to be a popular medium, but the latest digital data reflects a different picture. Social media users in India grew by 78 million between 2020 and 2021. Communication with beneficiaries on WhatsApp via direct messaging, videos, images, infographics and GIFs is proving increasingly effective. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be used for proactive campaigns. A mix of content from videos, photos, polls and live tweets using relevant hashtags and tags can help reach key stakeholders in policymaking. These platforms are cost-effective means of informing, motivating and conveying key messages to beneficiaries.
As we continue to face an unprecedented time with COVID-19, clear and relevant public health advice is essential through region-specific stakeholders. When public health interventions are contextualized appropriately, the perception of risk becomes an emotional response as the target audience relates behavioral actions cohesively and reliably.
Authors: Noveena Swapnabh and Riya Gupta. Noveena is a communications specialist and Riya is responsible for research and content development in the WeCan project at IPE Global Limited. The opinions expressed here are personal.
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