Coronavirus structure. Credit: https://www.scientificanimations.com / CC BY-SA

Risk communication has been considered as an inevitable part of the Public Health Program which has the capacity of addressing public health issues if implemented judicially. Effectiveness has been widely accepted by the public health professionals during the vigilance & outbreak response of severe acute respiratory syndrome(SARS-CoV-2), Middle East respiratory syndrome(MERS) and Ebola in different parts of the world. Public health experts have witnessed that communication strategies have made very encouraging changes in the attitudes and behaviours of the community especially in responding and adopting the preventive measures towards disease. Many organizations also believed that communication plays a crucial role in changing human perception. It helps in shifting the behaviour of the community from negative to positive. Further, addressing rumours and misinformation are among the most significant part of a communication strategy for any Public Health Program.  We all know that rumour and misinformation are contagious in nature and spreads like bush fire and both have dangerous consequences to the public health program than anything else.  Therefore, it is imperative for the government first to develop a mechanism to track and handle the rumours and misinformation that are spreading in the community and further educate and empower the community with correct information. “A perceived lack of consistency, competence, fairness, objectivity, empathy in crisis response in the public could lead to distrust and fear”.

Though it was late the Indian government took several initiatives to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  A number of decisions had been taken at the government level regarding the coronavirus, but the information was not fully made available to the public. For many days, there was an atmosphere of chaos and confusion. Announcement of lockdown without providing basic support to the daily wagers created turmoil which further stirred them to start the journey on the way to their native land. They had to travel miles on foot, some died before reaching their home. Moreover, the news of the closure of public transport created panic, opportunist took the privilege of making profits by increasing in the rates of food and goods.

Amidst all these happening around, PM Narendra Modi urged the citizen to ring a bell to motivate and applaud the frontline workers. In reply to the appeal of Prime Minister crowds gathered for hours to show their solidarity to frontline warriors. Two weeks after this episode Prime Minister made another request to light a candle and lamps for at least 9 minutes in order to show unity and togetherness in the fight against corona. Luckily, he got the same answer by his beloved followers, who again came on the street with Mashals (Torch and Candles) in their hand showing togetherness to the extent that they didn’t even bother about the risk of transmission by sabotaging the rules of social distancing. The incident took place in the initial stage of the COVID-19 outbreak in India is itself enough testimony to show the importance of communication while dealing with masses in relation to public health issues. The message conveyed by the government and its organization were not properly reached to the public, instead what community got was the half information or the misinformation which further aggravated the issues of preparedness against the fight with corona. At the first place, there was no proper communication strategy to deal with such kind of adverse effects of rumours and misinformation and on the other hand, the lack of planning and shortages of basic supplies made the government as well as the public helpless to stand firm to deal with corona pandemic. In the context of India, it appeared that media a very vital asset in the public health program, for reaching the masses had lost its way. For example, the kind of debates and discussions that the media houses had aired concerning the coronavirus and the Tablighi Jamaat have damaged our religious harmony. It further exposed the government’s inability in dealing with the communication aspect of the program. It is unethical for the government to remain quiet and reveal the religious identity of coronavirus patients in the media. In addition, it is also against the principles of community sensitivities. Several kinds of words and phrases were being coined to tarnish the image of one particular community. Interestingly, the word “stranded  ” was used for those returning from temples, Gurudwaras, and pilgrimages of different religions, but the word “hiding” was used for Muslims which were stuck in Nizamuddin Delhi and elsewhere due to immediate lockdown. Baseless allegations were glorified against a particular community to make them the sole culprit of corona transmission in India. I am not sure whether it was a deliberate attempt to stigmatise the image of a particular community or it was something else. But one thing I am sure is that the whole media reporting has weakened the government response to corona outbreak. The way media handled this case to distract the attention of citizens from real issues contradicts with the slogan of government which talks about togetherness and unity to fight against corona. It separated the community into different groups and sub-groups as if they were the enemy of each other. The whole reporting only helped the corona to transmit by dividing the community on the name of religion, caste, sects, and state.  Recently we also saw attacks on medical teams in Indore and Dharavi. Experts believe that such disgraceful events are happening due to the umpteen numbers of fake news and misinformation about the disease. Frontline health workers are more likely to face serious problems in the future if the government fails to address such issues seriously. In the past, we have witnessed that when a misinformation and rumours circulated, the whole village or neighbourhood would have stopped receiving polio which gave many sleepless nights to the Polio warrior to settle down the dust of fake information and make the community realise that Polio drop is safe for their children. It takes a great deal of responsibility, impartiality, sensitivity, and professionalism to make a statement heard, understood, and made publicly understandable. Unfortunately, such insights are rarely seen in the majority of media houses. Media used Corona as an opportunity to divide the society between majority and minority.

Instead of giving this war a religious or political colour, there was an urgent need for the media and the government to facilitate access to information and medical care to the poor, workers, and the affected population, and to inculcate a scientific temper in the people. Further, the whole efforts needs to be channelized in making the system transparent for public- the information is supposed to be made available by the government in the treatment of patients, the facilities available to patients and suspected patients, existing services in the hospitals, presence of specialist doctors, ventilators and so on. This will help in generating a sense of confidence build trust among the public about government and its machinery. Public must be convinced that the government is well equipped and ready to protect the life of every individual.  Once community trust is acquired the community will itself extends support in surveillance, contact tracing and in reporting the positive cases.

The time has come to deliberate on what government has done in using the social media and mass media platforms for reaching out to the community with correct information’sand what were the steps taken to empower the community with correct information. There is a need to carry out a study that what are positive changes in attitudes and behaviour is required to avoid the coronavirus. Further, it is also required to know whether the information related to coronavirus has created, scientific and practical understanding among the people or it has exaggerated their doubts and misinformation. Only the accurate and systematic understanding of the coronavirus in the public makes them self-sufficient and empowers them to act upon.

The information is the only source that inspires audacity and hope in a person, gives them the courage to fight adversity, and develops the ability to make the right decision at the right time. For, this the government needs to keep the public informed at different levels and create an atmosphere of trust. The campaign seeks the participation of various groups at all levels. Make every effort to develop harmony among the people rather than just chanting the slogan of it.  Further, it is important to keep the public informed about the testing situation on the ground, the number of people put in quarantine, and the identification process of suspected patients. Government has to come up with proper preventive measures, they have to pass on the right information, they have to work tirelessly to build trust and to inculcate the feeling of real harmony so that the public consciously follow the preventive guideline rather than adopting it out of fear from law enforcement agencies. It is time to treat corona as a public health emergency, that can be only overcome if we are together and endeavour in building trust in the real sense rather from mere rhetoric.

Shafeeque Ahmad is a Research Scholar Department of Social Work, Maulana Azad National Urdu University Gacchibowli Hyderabad. Email: shafeeque.azmi@gmail.com


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