COVID-19 and fragmentation of communications

Ishan Bhushan
“Indian railway never stopped even during the war, please understand the gravity of the situation, stay home.” The tweet by the official twitter handle of Railway of India echoed in million’s smartphones of India. The string of words knitted together efficiently can stimulate the desired change in the behavior of masses. ‘The change’ is an effective resolution which holds the potential to limit the spread of coronavirus. The often-overlooked strategic communications can induce the necessary behavioral change in the public and the states must devise effective campaigns to deal the pandemic with no cure yet to ‘COVID-19’. Be it as simple as washing hands frequently or something like installing the Aarogya Setu application, it’s the individual behavior that collectively limits the spread of Coronavirus.
With the rising number of cases and the absence of any medical treatment or vaccination of the disease so far, nations are adopting to behavior change as an effective method to tackle the spread of the virus. The need of effective communication strategy to prompt the individuals to comply with the recommended practices is the key to control the spread of pandemic. After successive lockdowns and the gradual ease of restrictions, effective communication holds the key to induce necessary behavior change in the individuals to decrease the spread of disease post-lockdown. The countries all around the globe are trying desperately to assemble back the blocks of life, the rising economic and societal pressures are mobilizing the nations to ease the restrictions. But the post-lockdown behavior of the individuals will be vital to their success.
With the number of total cases approaching 1 lakh 26 thousand and approximate 3 thousand 7 hundred deaths until 23rd of May, India’s tally of COVID-19 cases stands at 11th in the world. The successive nationwide lockdowns have so far decreased the spread of the virus but the inevitable repercussions of the restrictions are already testing its prolongation. The pandemic is placing an overwhelming burden on the health officials and authorities. The unavailability of the pharmaceutical measures like vaccine or antiviral medicine stresses the importance of multi-faceted approach to tackle the spread of virus. An important but poorly handled measure in reducing the transmission of the virus is rapid and widespread behavioral change. Effective, objective and continuous communication is the essence of desired behavioral change but in a pandemic, it can be the difference between life and death.
The ICMR report of 80% asymptomatic patients and the behavioral insights of dealing with covid-19 are of critical importance. Misinformation, Herd behavior (flocking the market after PM address, hoarding ration etc.) and fear mongering, the nation has witnessed so far must cogitate while elucidating the strategies of public communications. Misinformation, fake news, cultural theories and the rise of post truth culture made a significant impact on the spread of disease all around the globe. In India the attacks on the medical teams unveiled the devastation of misinformation, how it can undermine the public health response and thus the utmost necessity to counter it with strategic communications. These behavioral outcomes of the people are extremely important while designing the framework of behavioral change communications
Who is our target population? What kind of medium the intended population has access to? What social media platforms, digital channels or tools these groups use the most? What barriers are restraining the messages? are some of the questions that need to be answerered prior to the designing of the communication process. Similarly, a continuous message from multiple sources available can increase the likelihood of change encouraging the desired action. World Health Organization emphasis on the six principles– accessible, actionable, credible, relevant, timely, and understandable for effective communications. The need of effective communication strategies by the authorities in the contemporary era of unprecedented information is of vital importance in communicating COVID-19 messages.
Science magazine in the year 1919 published a paper based on the lessons of Spanish flu of 1918 which resulted in the death of 5 million people. The paper articulated three main factors halting the preventive measures.
i) The unwillingness of the people to lock themselves up in tight isolation as a means or to prevent the spread of flu.
ii) People just don’t appreciate the risks they run
iii) People often unconsciously aggravate the danger to themselves and others. We must not neglect the lessons of the past. The change in the behavior aligned with the recommendations of public health experts and authorities must be considered to effectively combat the spread of virus. The State Governments must consider the comprehensive communication strategy designed by experts to encourage the necessary change in the public behavior. Urgent actions with inclusive approach are much needed in the contemporary times of panic and uncertainty to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of the COVID-19.
(The author is a data journalist)