As the third COVID wave appears imminent in the country, robust communication strategies by government agencies become increasingly important. Public health messaging — in both form and content — is an extremely critical component of the response to a pandemic. Access to information about COVID guidelines, vaccination centres and helpline numbers posed a challenge during the first and second waves for a large section of the population, especially the digitally illiterate, marginalised and senior citizens. The avenues of information in the form of trusted media sources and bulletins from government websites seem to be unreachable for these categories.
“Only a creamy layer of the population relies upon the government websites or trusted news sites. Do you think an uninformed slum dweller or an uneducated person knows about these sites? The information should come to them so that they are sensitised,” says Abhinaya K, a resident of Semmenchery, who herself has fallen prey to miscommunication. She gave up many chances of getting vaccinated, deterred by a forwarded (fake and exaggerated) message on Whatsapp, flagging disruptions to women’s menstrual cycles caused by the vaccine. The result: she eventually contracted the coronavirus.
Although the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the Public Health Department have been consistently putting out information and educational articles about COVID on their official sites, there is still a section of citizens that rely on unverified news from social media. Abhinaya’s case echoes the need to always cross-check the information on social media.
“Citizens should rely on trusted government websites such as World Health Organisation (WHO), Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Right communication is necessary during a health crisis,” says Dr Keerthi Varman, Resident, MD General Medicine, Stanley Medical College. He was speaking at a webinar conducted by Citizen Matters Chennai on the importance of public health communication during a pandemic. The webinar took a deep dive into the current public messaging practices and formulated new strategies, in the shadow of a likely third COVID wave.
You can watch the entire discussion here:
Read more: COVID vaccines: Citizens need better communication and information
Communication strategies for third COVID wave
Considering that right messaging and informed decision-making puts a check on COVID-19, how can that gap be bridged? What strategies should the nodal government departments undertake to improve public health communication during the pandemic?
Based on inputs from the panellists at the above discussion, we zeroed in on five strategies that the government departments should follow to mitigate a likely third wave.
Modeling the message
Elected representatives and bureaucrats should set an example by walking the talk. Quoting an example of how political leaders failed to wear masks during and after the Tamil Nadu general elections, just as the second wave was building up, Geetha Veliah, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, SRM University said, “Trust plays a vital role in behavioural change among citizens. Citizens will comply with the guidelines of the government if they believe that the latter is concerned.”
Clear and consistent messaging
Building trust among citizens requires a consistent approach by the government agencies. GCC has stopped updating the zonal level data about COVID cases, recoveries and deaths on social media. It may be noted that the civic body had been consistently updating the information earlier, ever since the first wave struck last year. To build trust and enable behavioural change, so critical to reducing the impact of a likely third wave, government agencies should maintain consistent and empathetic messaging, says Geetha Veliah. This will eventually lead to COVID-appropriate behaviour and action among all sections of society.
As both informative and absurd messages surface on social media, government departments/government approved sources should counter them. “While Aarogya Sethu application was widely promoted on Whatsapp, and it certainly did inform people about contact tracing, the same platform also led to many fake messages,” says P S Rajadurai, retired excise department official and a resident of Madambakkam. There has to be a communication arm of the government’s task force to counter myths and call out falsities as soon as they surface, as Geetha suggested.
The many myths of COVID
Misconceptions due to fake messages have been an invisible, yet strong barrier for COVID vaccination and treatment. That the COVID-19 virus is not air-borne, that it spreads through non-vegetarian food or that a table fan is a substitute for oxygen cylinders are some of the common myths. “Many patients self-diagnose COVID by holding their breath for ten seconds. A false Facebook post says that if they could hold breath for ten seconds, they have no COVID,” says Dr Keerthi Varman, Resident, MD General Medicine, Stanley Medical College. Speaking from his experience, the doctor said that such fake messages had contributed to COVID fatalities.
Focus on vulnerable communities
Access to information has always been a challenge for the poor due to restricted access to technology. The government departments should have a special intervention in the form of awareness programmes for the low-income and high density settlements to keep the inevitible third COVID wave in check.
“Existing stigma often prevents them from visiting the nearest government offices for information. Many of them are unaware of the helpline numbers and the location of the fever clinics,” says Vanessa Peter, Founder and Researcher, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC).
Vanessa adds that government orders in English, and not Tamil, create a barrier to information and instruction for the marginalised. A broadbased messaging strategy should be adopted to cater to the digitally illiterate population. Pasting informative and credible messages on public spaces such as ration shops, tea shops and grocery stores, which such citizens are known to frequent, could be another important and effective intervention.
The Government should team up with volunteers, celebrities and NGOs to disseminate information on COVID treatment and vaccine hesitancy. “We should expand the functioning of NGO coordinating groups further to sensitise citizens,” says Vanessa Peter.
A few trusted sites:
- Health and Family Welfare Department
- Greater Chennai Corporation
- Tamil Nadu Covid Beds
- World Health Organisation