India’s risk communication strategy through the Covid-19 pandemic

In January 2020, news began trickling in from international media outlets about the emergence of a novel pathogen. Within weeks, Covid-19 had been recognised as a global pandemic and its rapid transmission became a source of grave public concern. The primary reason for this was the ambiguity around the pathogen –  how does it spread? What short and long-term effects does it have? How does one protect themselves from it? 

By the end of January, the first Covid-19 case had been detected in India and it would soon spread to other states in the country. The Indian government, much like others around the world, announced a nationwide lockdown in March. In the absence of a vaccine during the early stages,  central and state governments relied heavily on interventions like risk awareness to prevent and slow down transmission rates in the community. As a result, risk communication emerged as one of the primary tools to  spread awareness, motivate behaviour change, and control the rapid spread of the virus. 

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, with over 1 billion vaccine doses administered, our understanding of the virus, it's mitigation and spread has evolved. This makes it important to revisit the key messages that were crafted for mass dissemination, how these were communicated, and what we can do to continue building on the  momentum to effectively contain the spread of future variants of the virus. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) launched a communication strategy that went beyond the scientific and medical models of health by addressing a range of issues. Here are some of the ways in which this communication was done.

  • Diverse stakeholder engagement
    The MoHFW networked with diverse stakeholders including the Department of Telecommunications, the postal services, and the National Council for Science and Technology Communication to sensitise people about Covid-19. Given the scarcity of time and the sheer number of people , the government also partnered with private companies to reach out to citizens in remote corners of the country. For instance, the MoHFW collaborated with mobile companies to create a tailored callertune that raised awareness about the virus and instructed people to report to the nearest healthcare centre in case they developed symptoms. The ringtones included regional language messages that debunked myths, mitigated fear mongering, and educated people on the dos and don'ts. 
  • Addressing physical and emotional needs
    The communication by the government addressed both the physical and emotional needs of citizens. It used an array of topics like cultivating empathy for people who had been infected, provision of home care facilities and tips on how to take  care of your mental health. The communication also reduced stigmas around the virus through messaging like, “Do not stigmatize patients and family members,” “Do not stigmatize COVID-19 survivors,” and “Standing together against COVID-19 stigma.” A psychosocial toll-free helpline and a helpline email account were created for better community engagement. This also helped make the communication more inclusive.
  • Diverse mass media channels
    The MoHFW developed information, education, and communication (IEC) materials on risk awareness related to Covid-19 and strategies to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus. Along with print and electronic media, social media was used extensively to connect with people. A dedicated section on Covid-19 was developed on the MoHFW website that served as a key source of information for other media outlets as well. Using multiple channels increased the probability of intended audiences receiving enough messages on risk awareness to understand and act on them. 
  • Highlighting contribution of frontline workers
    For the first time, there was a series of communication materials that addressed the contribution of frontline workers, their need for protection, and the responsibility of society towards them. This led to  a major shift in public perception and more intentional work on the messaging, channels and strategy for risk communication.
  • Managing infodemics
    Infodemics refer to  false and misleading information that spreads rapidly during a disease outbreak. Facts are often mixed with misinformation and it becomes difficult to distinguish between what’s accurate and what’s not. To tackle this, the government held daily press briefings by the Ministry of Health, regular interviews with heads of government hospitals and two-way engagement with citizens via social media and dedicated phone lines. This in turn helped establish trust and placed emphasis on the real experts who were armed with accurate information.

As we continue to grapple with the rise and fall in cases and the possibility of future variants, the role of crisis communication must be to maintain transparency, integrity and accessibility. The government must prioritise real-time translation of scientific jargon into easily comprehensible  information, including the use of fact-checking services to ensure accuracy. With mass media being one of the foremost ways of disseminating information there remains a need for media communication training among scientists and academic experts to facilitate greater capacity for evidence-based public health reporting. This will ensure that  messaging is sensitive, tailored to accommodate the challenges of different communities and also accounts for their lived realities. 

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