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Have Governments Around The Globe Failed In Their Response To Covid 19?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Who is in charge? The city council? The state government? The federal government? It’s a question a lot of people have been asking each other in search of leadership amidst the pandemic of COVID-19.  Truth, expertise and clarity — these crucial elements of crisis leadership seem to be missing from most of the global political landscape.

Some political leaders have elevated public health experts to the tenuous task of public communication while others have taken the occasion to gain more limelight. Some have tried to balance public health communication and political strategy.  This leads to an important question: is the COVID-19 response a failure of communication?

What Does WHO Say About Communication?

“In outbreaks and epidemics, successful communication of risk and the mitigating actions that can be taken is often the most crucial element of effective outbreak management”. -WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, OUTBREAK COMMUNICATION PLANNING GUIDE (2008)

In the context of pandemics, WHO emphasizes proactive communication of public health information to the public as an essential tool at every level of the response strategy.  In the figure below, the blue arrow suggests the time at which proactive communication plays a crucial role in the rapid public health response — to help limit the spread of a disease and save lives.

The International Risk Governance Council, an independent non-profit, puts communication at the center of its recommended risk governance strategy. Specifically, “risk communication” may be defined as the exchange of information, directly or indirectly, between experts, policymakers and public.

The 2002–03 SARS outbreak led to the WHO releasing guidelines for communication in case of an outbreak.  It was based on the following principles:

Adapted from World Health Organization, Outbreak Communication Planning Guide (2008)

– Adapted from World Health Organization, Outbreak Communication Planning Guide (2008)

Communication In The COVID-19 Reponse:

Whether or not the citizens trust their leaders has become a crisis in response to the crisis.  Elected leaders in the United States, India, Brazil and Britain initially downplayed the dangers of the epidemic. However, the leaders in South Korea and Germany have fared relatively better in communicating public health information to the public.  At a global level, the credibility of the WHO has taken a hit due to it being seen as favouring China.

At the same time, most countries didn’t announce, earlier, the dangers that their citizens faced as the outbreak spread from one place to another. Moreover, they were also not transparent regarding their preparedness and the resource constraints faced by the healthcare system if there was a sudden flurry of infections. Whether to avoid injuring the economy or to protect their political interests, critical communication was lost.

The fears of the public, pertaining to health, economy and daily life, have remained unaddressed by most leaders. Even when public health experts have been heeded to, concerns about daily life have been ignored by public health communications, leaving people in confusion about their lives (except in the case of New Zealand). To make the situation worse, there seems to be a lack of coherent planning about communication within different levels of the government suggesting different things at the same time.

While China has been seen as a case of authoritarian dysfunction, democratic governments around the world have performed no better in terms of these principles. This is further reflected in how the failure of communication affects the public and policy implementation on a regular basis.

– Adapted from World Health Organization, Outbreak Communication Planning Guide (2008)

Starting with poor reporting of cases, lack of good and clear public health communication initially led to confusion about symptoms of coronavirus. This meant that people were receiving all sorts of misinformation about how to find out what to do, who to visit in case they suspected themselves or someone they knew to have contracted the virus. At the same time, lack of clear scientific guidelines has meant that the surveillance of the outbreak has been poor and irregular within and between countries.

Lack of clear and specific inter-governmental communication has also meant that different levels of government have initiated responses at different scales with unfocused utilization of resources. The emblematic example of this is the buying of protective equipment and tests for medical professionals. Hospitals, states and federal governments have often found themselves in conflict situations bidding each other out of auctions.

At the same time, the adoption of protective behaviour has been non-uniform across and within countries or even states. Some of this can be attributed to the lack of clear public communication about the utility and effectiveness of masks, sanitizers and physical distancing which could have better-nudged citizens to adopt good public health practices.


Prolonged incidence of risk and uncertainty along with the changing information landscape has meant that communication is particularly difficult in this pandemic. However, the communication tools available to the governments and agencies are more potent to reach specific populations than they have ever been. It seems that they have performed poorly in this aspect of governance.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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