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India’s COVID-19 Public Information Strategy: 5 Key Takeaways

Suneet Langar, Editorial Strategist

In times like today, when we’re locked inside our homes as a highly infectious pandemic sweeps across the world, the proverbial ignorance isn’t bliss –– it’s a death knell. Access to information, and more importantly, the correct information, is vital. But how do you communicate to a country of 1.3 billion people?

Over the past few weeks, governments and healthcare organisations in India have rolled out a slew of interesting public information campaigns, transmitting critical public health messages across the breadth and depths of our country to hopefully #FlattenTheCurve. There have been hits –– and there have been terrible misses! Here are five key takeaways.

1. Contextualisation

India is a diverse country, that of countless religions, cultures, and belief systems, all of which are factors that influence popular judgment and decision making. The country’s linguistic diversity presents a significant challenge as well –– 122 major and 1599 other languages, at least 30 of which are spoken by over a million people. A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work and customisation of messaging, not just in terms of language translations but addition of local reference points, is key to interpretation and recall.

2. Choose the Right Medium

How do you reach people with no access to the Internet, TV, or radio? Say, a tribal community in Telangana who is having to walk 30 kilometres through a tiger reserve just to collect essential supplies! It’s imperative, therefore, to understand India’s stark geographic and socio-economic disparities –– while 900 million people in the country have mobile phones, only 560 million have access to the web and 294 million use social media. So while YouTube videos and recorded PSAs on phones are great, we’re going to have to resort to conventional communication methods like vans or police bikes equipped with loudspeakers and posters and graffiti on walls and trees to ensure we reach everyone. And yes, images still speak louder than words.

3. Tapping into Celebrity Influence

In a country that literally idolises its cricketers and Bollywood actors, celebrity comes with massive influence, something we’ve previously tapped into to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Today too, this tool can help amplify the reach of public health messages, shape perspectives through trust, and generate meaningful social engagement –– whether it’s an Amitabh Bachchan explaining #SocialDistancing through a YouTube video or a Deepika Padukone highlighting the importance of washing hands on Instagram with the #SafeHandsChallenge.

4. Draw the Line: Communications vs. Propaganda

In January, a government ministry published a questionable advisory recommending the use of homeopathy and unani to fight COVID-19; the Hindu Mahasabha followed in March with a cow urine party to advertise its neutralising effects on the novel coronavirus; then a month later, the Tablighi Jamaat claimed that Allah was angry and humans were to blame for the pandemic –– all of this while healthcare workers risking their lives were being verbally abused and pelted with stones due to distrust in the administration. Today, misinformation is incredibly dangerous, and unfortunately, it can come from anywhere. So while you scroll through your WhatsApp messages or Instagram feeds and listen to the ‘news’, always take everything with a grain of salt. Bartan-beating and diya-lighting spectacles will only last you a few days in the absence of concrete, accurate information.

5. Be Empathetic

Lastly, we’re all in this together. So while your aunt sends you a WhatsApp forward with names and addresses of patients in your neighbourhood and local administrations put up warning stickers outside homes of people deemed potential carriers, please remember to be sensitive and kind. Precaution shouldn’t turn into stigmatisation. The disease, and the economic recession it’s set to leave in its wake, won’t discriminate –– you might be doing the surveilling today but tomorrow, you could be the surveilled!

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