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Creative communication about Covid is the need of the hour

The success of the communication drive around the Swachh Bharat initiative can be replicated in the current crisis.


Updated: May 13, 2021 8:13:08 pm
Creative communication about Covid is the need of the hourThe outreach of the mass-com signals has, of course, been useful in setting aside some of the harm. Over the last months, several health experts have gone well beyond technical jargon to become efficient public communicators. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)

Written by Akshay Rout

In his latest address to the nation during one of the most poignant periods in India’s history, Prime Minister Modi underlined several supply and demand side priorities; but then, almost with nostalgia, he recalled how during the Swachhata drive of recent years, children had raised a large amount of awareness around the country, especially in delivering messages among elders at homes.

PM Modi asked “child friends again to create an atmosphere in the house so that people don’t leave the house unnecessarily without work or any reason”. Simultaneously, he sought support of the media to make people “alert and aware” so that they don’t fall for rumours and misconceptions and the atmosphere of fear is dispelled. Seeking to harness the strength of people’s participation, he called upon the youth “to create small committees in their societies, localities and apartments and help others in following the Covid discipline”.

The Swachh Bharat reference is significant as India got swamped in a four-lakh-a-day infection and as an emergency measure, opened up vaccination for all above 18. One prime reason why we landed in the mess is because of slackness in Covid-appropriate behaviour; allowing for the growth of a sizable population of “Covidiots”.

There has to be a sufficient trigger for orchestrating any behaviour change. In terms of usage of toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), it was dignity for a large number of women, safety and security for some, health for many, love for children for several. In the ongoing pandemic, the trigger is clear and palpable — the fear of disease and death — and a strategy and programme of communication have to be astutely built around it.

Fines and other punitive actions are justified in times of the present urgency, but as experienced in all mass behaviour missions including Swachh Bharat, using the stick is not sustainable in a billion-plus society. People need to be hurled into the logic of desirable behaviour through scientific techniques of communication including shock and surprise.

From mask drop to mask up is like Open Defecation (OD) to Open Defecation Free (ODF). The potential of this effort hasn’t been exhausted even as we are currently drowned in the chat of vaccine and oxygen.

In the cleanliness drive of 2014-2019, the cornerstone of the strategy that got a 600 million open defecating population to move into toilets was multi-layer communication. SBM has been a sanitation revolution, a behaviour change revolution and a communication revolution — all in one.

It transformed itself to a people’s movement by persistent and purposeful communication that was scientifically created and coordinated among all stakeholders. A Gates Foundation estimate suggests that a villager in India was exposed to about 3,000 Swachh Bharat messages routed via newly-constructed toilets, mass media, the logo, ambient media such as wall murals and hoardings, inter-personal communication (IPC), digital media, and cinema.

Covid protocol, as well as the imperative of vaccination, still need to be systematically distilled to the level of a common cause across socio-economic milieus to make it a national movement. The messages need to resonate in all 22 languages, 720 dialects, along the 700 districts, across the 138-crore population.

There were several behaviour change agents in Swachh Bharat, as well. Fifty national brand ambassadors, 700 collectors, 500 young and skilled Swachh Bharat Preraks, 2,50,000 sarpanches, a fleet of 6.25 lakh Swachhagrahis, 10 lakh masons, 12 crore school children, the villagers on the banks of Ganges — all were communicators.

Amitabh Bachchan led a media campaign like Darwaza Bandh toh Bimari Bandh. Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Sachin Tendulkar took communication to a different level through round-the-year activism. The Swachhagrahis, one in each village, triggered families to become ODF. Five crore primary school children joined in 2017 to create mass awareness through letters, paintings and pledges. These Swachhata champions carried on the dialogue till the job was done.

One needs a similar durable cast of influencers and torchbearers for Covid communication till we have seen through all surges.

The vaccination conundrum presents a case of complicated communication needs. The under -vaccination of frontline workers and vulnerable populations has been attributed to hesitancy. With vaccine access given to the 18 plus cohort, hesitancy is visible among many in the age group, which is more curious and has more life at stake. The delivery of vaccines ahead of schedule has provoked doubts and rumours about possible side effects.

At the same time, the advent of universal adult vaccination has necessitated disciplining of demand in certain pockets in the absence of assured supply of doses. This calls for a sensitive and well-guided dialogue with the subsets of the target population on a continuous basis. Mediums with which the youth engage and messengers with whom they identify have to be roped to address this hesitancy.

Large sections of the population are intrigued by the cases of infection even after vaccination. Expectations from vaccination should be clear and candid household information.

Plenty has been written on the mental gloom that the pandemic has created across the country irrespective of the high-end support kit of the privileged and the personal resilience of the common Indian. With rising disease and services severely stretched, there is helplessness, at times leading to desperate action that could vitiate the already complex ground.

Psychiatrists and counsellors are working on assignment basis to lift small groups out of the mental morass. But if we wish to repair the minds of crores of Indians, the platforms need to be larger and the communications relentless and sensitive. Mass communication has to be leveraged for spreading the belief that the current dark clouds shall wither and life will be beautiful again.

Communication from selected icons and faith leaders can soothe frayed nerves and restore calm. India also needs to constantly pay ode to doctors and other health workers, to keep their tired minds and bodies going through innovative communication.

Old timers recall with warmth the Jaimala programme for soldiers during the ’60s and ’70s when celebrities used to host songs on Vividh Bharati for those guarding the country’s frontiers. For the soldiers and their families, and for Indian citizens, Jaimala created a bonding of valour, sacrifice and patriotism. Creative communicators can similarly bring together Covid warriors and survivors to get across key messages to the general public.

The awful level of misinformation and disinformation regarding the virus and the treatment have subsided but not gone; these too keep mutating to refuel the so-called “infodemic”. The latest rumours are not only about the vaccines, but also medical inputs, prominently oxygen.

The outreach of the mass-com signals has, of course, been useful in setting aside some of the harm. Over the last months, several health experts have gone well beyond technical jargon to become efficient public communicators. Enterprising journalists have quick researched their way to Lancet-level knowledge to bring to the larger community simple truths of the pandemic.

But it can’t be said with assurance that new myths were not created by an overheated dialogue playing out in the public domain by these very sections. Doctors, mostly communicating over the electronic medium, have been speaking as they must, but possibly over speaking on occasions, or speaking on too many lines at times; perhaps adding inadvertently to the problem that they would like to prevent. People may be consuming an overdose or wrong dose of Covid information that could push them to unhealthy mental situations.

Behaviour change communication at scale could succeed only through its true democratisation as evidenced in the case of Swachh Bharat. The same BMGF study estimates that the SBM mobilised IEC activities worth about Rs 25,000 crore from a range of actors while the government invested only a tenth of it. The study observes: “Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the government has shown remarkable ability to leverage resources across the public sector, private sector, media, and civil society, to make sanitation a mass movement in India.”

It was communication in action in every sector, every domain, every aspect of life: Swachh Vidyalaya, Swachh iconic places, Swachh rail, Swachh market, Swachh national parks, Swachh petrol pumps and Swachh toll plazas; even Swachh Holi and Swachh Diwali; and of course, the unmistakable Swachh Bharat logo on the currency. Women’s Day was the day of Swachh Shakti, Independence Day meant a call for freedom from open defecation, Gandhiji’s birth anniversary was to be preceded by Swachhata Hi Seva, the hundredth anniversary of Champaran Satyagraha was mobilisation for Satyagraha se Swachhgraha

Yes, there was Swachh Kumbh as well which became more famous for a world record in sanitation than anything else. The just-completed Kumbh could have been showcased as a Kumbh against Corona instead of what it turned out to be, the notorious election rallies could have been occasions for pledging to mask up and never to mask down.

Sanitation went to the silver screen besides appearing openly on numerous TV shows and Shaucha Singh-like radio presentations. A new breed of films like Toilet Ek Prem Katha received wider commercial appeal. India’s corporates joined in taking forward the sanitation agenda through coalitions or through individual CSR. Media houses spared editorial and commercial time and designed their own spectacular campaigns to propagate messages of cleanliness. Swachh districts, Swachh villages and Swachh towns were recognised following well laid out competition and evaluation.

There may come a time when villages, towns, and communities may seek recognition for being fully masked up and fully vaccinated. For Covid communication to be omnipresent, it has to become everyone’s business.

Swachh Bharat communication is a national asset that can be fully replicated to deal with the devastating pandemic, if not eradicate it. The simple mantra of “Dawai bhi, Kadai bhi” – get vaccinated and take all precautions — should translate to a million messages, delivered in a million ways. Engrossed in immediate supply-side pre-occupations, we overlook the basic alphabet of demand creation at our own peril.

Akshay Rout is former director general (special projects), Swachh Bharat Mission and currently a visiting professor at the Central University of Odisha. Views expressed are personal

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