CoVID-19 and Communication:
Challenges facing risk communication and community engagement
The reality of Covid-19 and its interjections provide an increasing difficult sphere of thought for practitioners and communication. The challenges surrounding the misdemeanor present information and a socioeconomic crisis. It’s estimated that 70–100 million people are conversely being pushed into abject poverty.
Traditional thinking of RCCE (risk communication and community engagement) is being tested with an influx of widespread paranoia against public and social health measures. There is a high rate of complacency to messages and cautious living is now highly contested by societies under the disguise of feeling less powerful, in what they can do to prevent the virus. The increasing rate of poverty in Africa coupled with the social injustices continue to adorn growing fatigue caused by uncertainty and lack of trust in both government and institutions with a pretext of associating the virus into being a financial tool benefiting the selected few.
Occasionally social discourse in some of the groups in which I interact both socially and professionally continue to reference the increased cases of incompetence at country level and the influx of unresearched information stemming from multiple sources. These factors continue to provide growing assumptions and perceptions towards COVID-19 interventions. It is out of this bias that we are observing high degrees of rejection for health interventions such as vaccination.
The times are calling for tactical and technical revision of strategies to address existing challenges. It is important to note that one way approaches to communication can no longer be sufficient enough to deliver results. Multi sector, disciplinary and policy reviews need to be examined and re-engineered to beef up risk communication strategies in order to remain relevant and purposeful. To make sense of the above, we need to be aware of the following challenges that communication interventions are facing and find ways of addressing them such as:
Government interventions: Today, global leaders have a role to play in boosting community confidence and advocating for change supported by civil societies and communities. A rejection of targeted approaches that address community healthcare such as vaccination, and habitual communal practices e.g washing hands and wearing a mask presents increased challenges towards health communications resulting into an increased spread of COVID-19.
Awareness about Covid-19: Globally there is evidence of awareness of covid-19 symptoms with studies suggesting that over 64% of people are aware of the realities of the pandemic. (However risk perception is declining and the effect is being highly observed in the young people in Uganda). There is a need for evidence based communication, development of a unified voice segmented into informing, influencing, engaging and measuring the success of a communication.[i]The strategies implored should include; socially vulnerable populations e.g indigenous people, slum residents, refugees, prisoners, internally displaced persons, detainees who are often unable to adhere to physical distance measures and therefore are at a greater risk.
During the lock-down in Kampala, Uganda, refugees were unable to move to get food. Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) was distributing food directly to the most vulnerable refugees using motorbikes.[ii]
Information sources: Although there is profound trust in scientists and medical doctors, global data suggests a 68% trust. The infodemic in Uganda, shows an increase in prejudice against institutions that are internationally credible. There is an increase of shared content through WhatsApp from unverified sources resulting into increased paranoia against health communication. Society, particularly the elite are questioning the validity of interventions such as vaccination. This only highlights that there is a need for urgent reliable health communication materials to counter the growing infodemic situation as well as address the vast knowledge gaps that could be the result of the challenges we are observing.
Some of the strategies that could be adopted include: engaging decision makers to develop solutions and ways to collect and analyze information in order to inform their decisions, develop evidence generation plans to fill identified gaps, adapt minimum standards of RCCE, ensure data feeds into advocacy, improve media monitoring systems, track trending shared content, Ask questions by demographics, language, gender, and age in order to map out responses against communication. (Visible examples include: Madagascar which developed an on demand gender information service for women, and the Central African Republic which opened up an emergency telecommunication cluster set up as a 1212 toll free number and a hotline for MOH to respond to COVID-19 queries[iii].
We also encourage, stakeholders that are engaged in RCCE to participate in community feedback groups across the continent,[iv] [v]and develop common tools and systems around knowledge management. There is also a need to be cognisant of cultural, sociopolitical, economic, technological and adoptive subcultures that have evolved since the discovery of COVID-19.
Neglect of self: 50% of people do not believe in themselves as the first gateway to fighting COVID. [vi] Scholars predominantly associate this with self-efficacy however, for purposes of our audiences, it’s important to note that people’s confidence in themselves is low and therefore they are less likely to practice preventive measures.
Although we have observed many tools that can help an individual in first of all knowing their health status, such as the COVID 19 self checker research and findings suggest that there are a number of self help tools.[vii] Likewise, a number of digital and interaction methods and platforms have been created such as Wanji games working with multi partners. This tool for example is a collection of interactive path based audio games that help players adopt health behaviours. [viii]
That said, in communities like ours in Uganda, communications need to increase a connect between understanding the circumstances that society is going through (empathy) and the validity of providing statutory data about the risks of COVID as well as viable visual solutions that communicate the intricacy of the pandemic.
By creating communications that recognize community needs through advocating for economic recovery we will open up an interaction with our audiences that makes sense to them . For example: if we communicate the need to work freely but cautiously following SOP’s, we will naturally create a connection between our receivers and us for they will relate with our communications. However, bombarding the populace with information that does’nt relate with the challenges they are facing only presents a void between the senders and the receivers.
The assumption is that community will recognize empathy from the sender and relate with the risk involved in trying to survive in order to adopt meaningful behaviour change towards communication.
Likewise, communication strategies must be beefed up with government interventions to address the increased rate of poverty by reinforcing capacity and local solutions to control the pandemic and mitigate its impact through mentoring, technical support, resource sharing with local actors (including media and communication sectors) and national or subnational government, working in the public health, humanitarian and development responses.[ix]
Pandemic Fatigue: Due to the uncertainty of living conditions globally, the need to make ends meet are far much greater than the worry of picking up the virus. This of course, coupled with stress[x], uncertainty, low risk perception, reduced trust and extreme poverty. These factors have resulted into denouncing of health habits such as social distancing, washing hands, using hand sanitizers and wearing masks. This very often is a result of change in perception and attitude driven by frustration and uncertainty, the feeling of getting used to the situation and divergent perceptions on risk.
From these actions, we observe trends that result in an increased toll on the health systems[xi] and unsustainable pressure on the health workers resulting into a decline of associated medical interventions for disease prevention and treatment.
Inequalities: Globally the effect of the pandemic on economic resources has resulted into financial gaps.The need to survive is imminent and there are vast gaps between the marginalized and middle-income people in Africa. 1/3 of people in third world countries are at a risk of lacking food and barely being able to make ends meet. It is our duty to tell this story to the world in order to fight the unforeseen eventualities that put our communication interventions at a risk of falling on deaf ears.
I have chosen to leave out stigma but do recognize that advocates of appropriate health communication interventions could fall victim of being the hunted rather than the hunter as society perceives them as beneficiaries of health interventions. It’s therefore our duty to address the gaps that we observe as quickly as we can so that we continue to be advocates for social well being and change.
We are therefore invited to reflect on the challenges at hand and work towards mitigating the gaps in order to create communication solutions that address the needs of our society.
Luwaga Gyaviira — Communication and Media
Lewis+Shaw Advertising Agency
[i] Tips for engaging communities during COVID-19 in Low Resource settings, Remotely and in person.
[iii] Tips for engaging communities during COVID-19 in Low Resource settings, Remotely and in person. p35
[iv] COVID-19 Pandemic 6-month Update (IFRC, 2020)
[v] COVID-19 Risk Communication and Community Engagement
Stories from the Field — ESARO (UNICEF, 2020)
[ix] These could include government departments, local NGOs, and community-based organizations such as women’s groups, youth groups, persons with disabilities organizations, parent teacher associations, community health workforces, traditional healer organizations, birth attendants’ groups, and local radio/media.
[x] Pandemic fatigue Reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19 (WHO, September 2020)
[xi] Reconfiguring health systems vital to tackling COVID-19 (WHO, April 2020)