The Challenge is Communication by S NARENDRA

The WHO chief recently has described the global COVID-19, that has laid the nations   low and desperate as an Infodemic. It means that there is a lot of information out there about the epidemic, most correct and useful but a sizeable portion that is fake and unscientific. The latter, without timely correction could go to derail the fight against the epidemic. In this digital age of speedy transmission, the scientific   information that could go to empower the people to protect themselves and their close ones against the epidemic criss-crosses the unscientific. The scientific information of the former variety is the first line of defence in our fight.

COVID-19 that showed up in China late last year (hence,Covid-19)  is baffling medical scientists, who are in a race to find a cure and a vaccine. Even for the scientifically inclined and others who are literate it has become difficult to digest the mountain of information that is building up by the minute. Unfortunately, there is also political content in the air that is polluting the scientific information. The WHO and governments are caught in this web.

The initial core messages emanating from the governments and health experts, one would think, has largely succeeded in communicating the threat from the epidemic and the basic but vital protective steps needed to be taken by individuals and the community. The lockdown and threat of coercion visiting failure to comply with steps like staying home and maintaining   social distance in public spaces have brought home the message.

My generation has seen epidemics like the Plague, Cholera, Typhoid. The former two in my time had vaccines and have had the personal experience of very big needles jabbing the shoulder, that used to swell and pain for days. Entry to most big melas and temple events depended upon visitors carrying the vaccination certificate. The municipal workers used to visit houses to pump ‘Cyno gas’ into rat holes in the walls.

A global epidemic like COVID-19 has to come up with different  levels of communication. One is common global protocol for prevention of spread. The other is adjusting the universal message for local situation that is dynamic.

In the case of India, the first set of messages like washing hands with soap was helpful in underscoring this healthy habit. But most audio-visual messages have tended to show washing under running tap water. This latter is a luxury not available to most households. As we are entering the dry, hot season, in many places even access to drinking water becomes scarce. The use of sanitisers is not an option.

Reality check will show that Social Distancing in an over -crowded, poor country is unattainable even in a dream. Alternatively, the need to protect one’s near and dear ones from infection by covering one’s mouth and nose needs more emphasis. The sense of one’s liability has tobe brought up front. Besides endorsement of such visual messages by celebrities with credibility, endorsement by ordinary householders in varying circumstances could go to strengthen the liability issue.

As said before, the government and the people have to deal with a very dynamic situation. In a lock -down,  it is possible to enforce clinical norms. Even in such a situation, one has seen innumerable breaches by highly visible political figures and in religious events. The impunity with which such breaches have occurred dilutes the seriousness of the messages.

The big challenge comes while calibrating the opening up of the economy and society for usual commerce. It would be ideal if the remaining period of the lockdown period is utilised for stressing that jobs and incomes and businesses could come back only when and if the concerned people follow  the’ new normal behaviour’ at all times and places without exception. Exemplary enforcement by authorities, supported by forming relevant local people’s committees could work. The governments at the centre and the states need to work with businesses in designing and communicating sector specific messages about the new normal rules and regulations.

Building up social pressure through messaging is important. It is necessary to dispel the illusion that the epidemic will go away very soon and prepare the people for the long haul. Returning to life as before the lock down could be a work-in-progress during the decade of 2020s.

A crucial aspect of communication is instilling confidence in the efforts of the authorities   to control the epidemic spread and in establishing the government’s sincerity in mitigating the hardship  experienced  by  every section of the society. In this respect, the leaders of New Zealand, Germany, Singapore, the mayor and Governor of New York have come out on top. Eschewing the compulsions of competitive politics of democracy in the face of the deadly epidemic would greatly add to the credibility of messaging. Even in wealthy USA, Britain, the clash of political egos has cost avoidable loss of lives to the epidemic.

It has to be noted that no communication would work, so long as it is not preceded by adequate steps to meet the wide spread hunger caused by the economic dislocation. (The author is former Information adviser to PM)

Pic caption: Migrants waiting for their opportunity to get out of Mumbai