The world’s largest democracy is silent. And truly, the sound of this silence is deafening. What explains this uber quiet atmosphere? Is it because the Indian government mandated it and our citizens suddenly became highly law abiding? No. It is because the Indian people are scared, very scared, to say the least, as the spectre of death hangs over them — even though experts say this is not correct since most people will outlive the pandemic.
The silence is very unsettling, but now even the subdued voices are questioning the very fundamentals on which this lockdown was executed.
The communication strategy in India around the coronavirus pandemic is now unraveling and a major rejig is necessary as the strategy is going horribly wrong. Experts are now questioning the use of complex phrases that were unleashed on India — they believe this to be the primary reason for communication going awry. Risk communication is a very tricky business. Not many are equipped to handle it, least of all bureaucrats who are tied to the ever-imminent burden of transfers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi says that COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. But speaking to civil society organisations Preeti Sudan, Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reportedly said, ‘there is a lot of stigma that’s attached to corona and this was totally unexpected’.
On the other hand, seasoned politicians like Harsh Vardhan, who know how to handle viral outbreaks, are far too gentle. Bear in mind, he was instrumental in chasing polio (also a viral disease) out of India and he’s also an ENT surgeon by training.
Today, there is a growing understanding that “social distancing” was an inappropriate phrase to use — the better phrase could have been “physical distancing” or something else that carries the same message for an Indian context. The term “janata curfew” had good resonance, for instance, and people adhered to it. But “social distancing” was a poor choice.
Similarly, the phrase “lockdown” was a terrible choice simply because Western countries were using it. India also imposed it on its unsuspecting people. It has a bad taste to it, and gives the feeling of being “put in a lock up” or being arrested. Maybe, “stay at home or be indoors with family” was better phraseology. These alien terms need to be given up ASAP. I had questioned the usage of both these terms in the formal press conferences of the government but received no satisfactory answers. In fact, “lock down” as a phrase, it seems, has no legal basis as well.
The other word which is giving people panic attacks is “quarantine” — to most people this means being arrested and put in a government facility not too different from a “jail”. Indian jails are notorious for abysmal conditions and the stories emerging from various “COVID-19 quarantine facilities” present a grim picture.
This terrible phraseology has led to an unanticipated backlash, Indians are avoiding getting themselves tested for coronavirus, and are turning up at hospitals when they are almost gasping for breath. This is usually too late, say doctors. The man leading the charge on the corona pandemic for India, Randeep Guleria, director of the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, flagged this and reportedly said, “stigmatisation against corona needs to be removed”. He even went on to say “corona is NOT a serious disease”, meaning most of us will easily survive it.
But today the empty roads in India suggest that the public is now under a severe fear psychosis. Who created this scary scenario? Certainly not the people. The disease is totally alien to India: So it was possibly the use of wrong phraseology from the very beginning that has led us to this unfortunate situation a month into the “lockdown”. Some introspection should have been done before using alien phrases, and communication experts could have been taken on-board. The entire communication was driven top down from Nirman Bhawan and South Block.
Now experts are saying that the use of Hindi phrases like “vaishvik mahamari” are also leading us nowhere. If both AIIMS and ICMR doctors are to be believed, then most of us will see a good sunrise after the pandemic is over. Today, to most Indians, a corona infection is almost akin to having been given a “death warrant”: It is not a death sentence, this is the message that needs to sink in.
Sometime in the middle of March, Balram Bhargava, the head of ICMR, gave me an insightful interview and categorically said, “corona is not as deadly as it is being made out to be”. But somewhere in the last 4-5 weeks, the communication strategy has been cracking up, leading to a situation that is undesirable and unacceptable. A quick correction is required so that ever lasting damage can be avoided.
Who knows how long this “stay at home” or “janata curfew” would continue, but it is fraying at the edges and leaving a deep imprint on people’s minds. Till such time these house arrests start becoming a positive part of our lives, we may not be able to arrest the coronavirus: Today, as it stands, mostly the humans are caged and the virus is free. More importantly, the messaging and communication around the corona pandemic has to become India specific and in tune with our diverse cultures. Lav Agarwal, spokesperson for the health ministry, asserts that, “messaging should target the heart and not the head and it should be compassionate messaging”.
After all, we need to learn to live with the virus, and not be mortally afraid of it. Like Modi says, the “virus will be around for months”. Be happy, be safe, there will certainly be a new normal that will emerge. And yes, believe in the fact that we will see a new dawn, better than ever before.
The writer is a science communicator for the last three decades and co-author of the book Bridging the Communication Gap in Science & Technology- Lessons from India