Strategic Communication: A Vaccine to Fight COVID-19

While undertaking such strategic communication programme to fight COVID-19, inclusion of communication experts is a must.

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All of us across the globe are facing COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are actually still no drugs to help physicians treat the pandemic or vaccines to prevent the disease. However, its symptoms like fever, breathing problems, etc can be treated with existing curative care. So, what measures will help eradicate the virus? WHO clearly emphasises social distancing and self-isolation as an effective way to eradicate COVID-19. Social distancing and lockdown have been used in all the COVID-19-hit countries including China, the root country of the pandemic. This behavioural therapy, which was not applied before 1918, is still the only option to combat COVID-19. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, some 50 to 100 million deaths were reported worldwide. Majority of the population practised social distancing that helped control the outbreak.

All the social distancing rules and health messages are on preventive care to save lives during this pandemic. Communicating these messages will work like a vaccine. Generally, we focus on creating awareness towards a certain health issue, but it is a primary step of a behaviour change process. For example: we know social distancing, but we don’t follow these rules that mean our awareness level has been created but our behaviour has not been changed. Here this communication process has failed to fight COVID-19. Lack of proper communication is the significant factor behind it. A recent study of BRAC Institute of Governance & Development has found that people are confused about “stay at home,” “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown.” Each of these terms mean different things to people of different socio-economic backgrounds in Bangladesh. It says many people wear masks when they are alone, but remove it once they meet a friend, or elderly, or a customer. The practice of social distancing rules in India and other Asian countries are more or less the same.


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Sometimes COVID-19 preventive messages disseminated among the population are not clear, simple and understandable.

If you advise someone to maintain social distancing, the meaning of the message is not clear. If you ask to follow physical distance, this message is not also clear, but if you advise someone to stay two arms’ length from others, this message is clear. We should remember that COVID-19 information and its messages are not the same. Actually, information can be technical jargons, but its messages must be clear and fitted with socio-cultural-religious norms of the target people.

Hence, only strategic communication can be a solution and we should undertake a national strategic communication programme to convey the messages related to COVID-19. Why strategic communication? Because, simple communication is only a process of sharing information among human beings. For example: ‘Please give me a glass of water’—it is a usual communication, but when we want to popularise “safe drinking water” it needs strategic communication explaining which water is safe or which is not. Strategic communication is a goal-oriented process to disseminate messages for bringing societal changes or fight diseases as a preventive action.

Strategic communication works like a lifesaving drug or a vaccine through building awareness, knowledge, attitude, practices or behaviours.

Using a nationwide strategic communication programme along with rapid testing, and aggressive contact tracing, Vietnam has become successful in containing coronavirus. Vietnam has managed to keep its confirmed cases to just 334 with no death (as of June 16). The Vietnam government has used the power of communication. It used different slogans. For example, “we love you so we go to the frontline. If you love us, please stay indoors”. Nationwide public loudspeakers, state-run television, folk media, folk songs, door-to-door visits with leaflets, and mini-trucks and motorbikes have also been employed as part of its communication strategy. It has built a trust among citizens and engaged them with fighting COVID-19 through strategic communication.


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Some proven communication models exist to initiate a plan of action for such a strategic communication programme. P-Process is one of them, which has been used since 1982 as a key to designing successful strategic communication programmes for strengthening public health worldwide. Five steps are followed to fulfill the goal of P-Process. The five steps are analysis (of the target people and situation), strategic design (for fixing objectives, channels, and plan of action, etc.) development and testing (of messages and materials), implementation and monitoring as well as evaluation and re-planning. While undertaking such strategic communication programme to fight COVID-19, inclusion of communication experts is a must.

 

The writer, a policy research consultant, is with the Faculty, Mass Communication & Journalism, Begum Rokeya University, Rangpur, Bangladesh. He can be reached @mahmudraj9