This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by India Development Review (IDR). Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Coronavirus: “We Cannot Have A One-Size-Fits-All Communication Strategy”

More from India Development Review (IDR)

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

By SOHINI BHATTACHARYA

In Benin, West Africa, M&C Saatchi (a communications agency) worked with Sightsavers (a nonprofit) to design social and behaviour change communications (SBCC) on COVID-19. The creative asset was a television commercial (TVC) that was to be pre-produced by M&C Saatchi in six local languages with subtitles. Other assets included radio, billboards, posters, flyers, and training guides for health workers as well as religious and traditional leaders. With inputs from Sightsavers on inclusive and accessible design recommendations, the TVC used a sign language interpreter and amplified words that were sung in a different colour.

They also considered the position and size of the signer on the screen and the impact of the signer wearing a face mask, which can reduce the use of facial expression and mouthing. The result was that the design supported people who have hearing loss, are deaf or have issues with working memory, processing speed, or dyslexia. The Ministry of Health representative took the position of supporting accessibility before official approval was granted for the TVC. “This more inclusive campaign has provided a great stake in the ground for how we should develop communications with inclusion in mind. This should form our starting point for future campaigns, in which we build on our previous work and look for ways to go further in delivering inclusive communications,” said the representatives from M&C Saatchi.

What Has Our Response To COVID-19 Taught Us?

As a civil society organisation that does not work on service delivery, we at Breakthrough debated our community response to COVID-19 endlessly. The voices pouring out of black boxes on my Zoom screen were frustrated and angry. My colleagues said, “We are fighting several pandemics at various levels, as technology and social media has made misinformation fly at a rapid rate. This has made it difficult for us to get back the rapport we generally enjoy with the communities with whom we work. We are now being viewed with suspicion because we are talking about vaccines and treatments.

Consequently, we decided that as we start building back, one of the areas of focus will be our communication on the pandemic, and how that communication can be context-specific and reflect the voices of the people we work with. This was based on an important lesson we learned during the last 18 months—in a crisis if we forget to have consistent dialogue with the communities for whom we are designing services, and if we do not use targeted communication to talk about what’s relevant to them, they may partake in misinformation and fake news.

There has been a huge response to the crisis from governments, civil society organisations, donors, political leaders, doctors, and scientists. And much of this has been about communication—protocols, treatment, and vaccines. There has been widespread information overload on every aspect of the pandemic. But were we strategic or inclusive enough in developing that communication? Did we keep in mind that communication can effectively create social behavioural change?

Learning From The Past

From past experiences, we have seen that community engagement and social change strategies built into communication have proved vital for everything from massive immunisation gains in the 1990s and 2000s, to Ebola, and meeting the polio challenge.

If you take the case of Ebola in West Africa, some of the most successful communication strategies were community engagement and targeted health communication to groups that were most at risk. At the beginning of the outbreak, the efforts at fighting misinformation and myths were not very strong, and so harmful solutions were peddled as the right ones. But later on, the use of ‘Ebola Hour’ on the radio to break myths and provide clear and correct health information proved to be very effective. Liberian advocacy groups posted audio announcements about Ebola in local native languages on Facebook to reach those who did not understand English and those who couldn’t read. International organisations worked with local anthropologists in Guinea to analyse the situation and improve cooperation with local communities.

They found that the treatment of Ebola had so far focused on biomedical aspects alone and disregarded parameters such as community, society, and culture. Subsequently, they started to take the fears, concerns, and traditional beliefs of the local communities seriously. They found that locals were interpreting terms like ‘isolation centres’ as ‘death chambers’, from where no one was seen coming out alive. As a simple first measure, the anthropologists suggested changing the term to ‘treatment centres’. There was also a focus on a multi-modal strategy to effectively communicate prevention and management of the virus to affected communities.

Communicators must wear the audiences’ lens and understand their needs, perceptions, and self-efficacy. | Picture courtesy: ©Gates Archive/Saumya Khandelwal

It seems that these lessons from the Ebola outbreak hardly percolated through the global community when COVID-19 began. The ‘infodemic’, a new term I learned during this time, was diverse and varied. The huge influence of social media platforms amplified rumours and questionable information. Algorithms facilitated content promotion and the spread of information. This helped shape absurd narratives from the early days of the pandemic.

Examples include misinformation connecting Bill Gates to the origin of the virus in a lab and rumours about vaccines causing impotence as the second wave and vaccine rollout hit India. Rumours and misinformation combined with fear even led to attacks on some health workers. Many organisations focused on breaking some of these myths and countering false information through social media posts and films, such as the countdown film by BBC Media Action.

What Does Our Research Tell Us?

In late June 2021, we at Breakthrough undertook a dipstick research study to find out how COVID-19 is affecting women and girls indiscriminately in the areas where we work. We realised that concepts like post-vaccine symptoms are difficult to understand in rural, underprivileged communities as the onset of fever indicated illness, not a process of building antibodies to fight it.

Initially villagers were ready to get vaccinated, but then we heard that many people fell ill after their vaccination. So we thought if this is happening to so many, why should we take the vaccine at all?” said Ramsharan from a small village in Uttar Pradesh. The findings also showed that digital registration is resulting in fewer women taking the vaccine as they do not have access to devices and that there is a clear hierarchy when it comes to sharing the workload at home—it is always the woman first. If she falls sick, older girls take over. Only if all the female members of the household are unwell do the men and boys get into action.

What Can We Do Now?

As we start looking beyond the second wave and focus on building back, how can we improve communication on COVID-19? I spoke to some experts on this issue. Priyanka Dutt, executive director of BBC Media Action, said it is crucial to take a much more strategic, human-centred approach to develop communication. “Can we think about delivering evidence-based, engaging and impactful social and behaviour change communication on the pandemic?” she asked.

Sanjeeta Agnihotri, deputy director of the Center for Communication and Change – India (CCC-I), said that it is crucial to share a unified, accurate and credible message. “It is (also) important to tailor these messages according to the different audiences,” she added.

As Priyanka says, we must go beyond simple information and start looking at communication from the point of view of people—who are complex and have varied and layered needs, which have been impacted by COVID-19. SBCC preparedness efforts are an integral part of strengthening a health system and can bolster its ability to respond to an emergency public health crisis.

Representational Image. People’s attitudes towards the vaccine need to be gauged and monitored.

Creating such communication signifies a need to identify different stakeholders, understand their roles, and quickly engage them together to solve a problem—for example, bringing local influencers in to talk about the need for vaccines. SBCC also ensures that structures and networks are established among various stakeholders, resulting in successful coordination efforts between policymakers and nonprofits, distributors of medical supplies, and community health workers. These and other initiatives can contribute to an overall transformation of health systems, allowing them to function well and respond to emergencies when necessary.

We must focus on understanding people’s attitudes towards adopting COVID-19-appropriate behaviour, including taking vaccines. We should also do more collectively to equip people in tackling misinformation, including learning how to tell facts from fiction and pausing to check the veracity of data before sharing it with friends and family.

Do communities feel they have the individual and collective skills and ability to adopt COVID-19-appropriate behaviours? Both Sanjeeta and Priyanka talked about tailoring communication to meet the specific needs of marginalised communities. Each individual has a unique lens through which to view the world. Communicators must wear that lens and understand the audiences’ needs, perceptions, and self-efficacy. Sanjeeta also spoke about how our interventions can be modified to address where people are in their behaviour change level: Are they close to acknowledging the benefits of change? Have they taken an action that shows they are ready for it? Or are they relapsing to the maskless days of pre-pandemic liberation?

My colleagues at Breakthrough believe that COVID-19 communication cannot come purely from a public health lens. Don’t we have enough evidence on the intersectionality of the problem—from women and girls suffering disproportionately across the world to minorities and migrants facing higher risks of contagion than white upper and middle classes in the USA? Any way you look at it, communication is effective when it is tailored to the audience you aim to reach.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done in strategic SBCC that can inform, empower, and connect communities. It must be designed in collaboration with communities and delivered in partnership with public and private sector organisations. We also need to figure out how communication can play a role in the many intersectional issues emerging from the pandemic—the escalation in gender-based violence, mental health concerns, and more. We cannot have a one-size-fits-all communication strategy. We need our ‘Corona Hour’ on the radio.

Breakthrough is a member of the Global Alliance for Social and Behaviour Change.

This article was originally published in India Development Review.

About The Author

Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO of Breakthrough, is a social change enthusiast who has 25+ years of experience in the social sector. Before Breakthrough, she co-founded a gender resource centre; worked directly with grassroots communities and built market-artisan interfaces for a national nonprofit. Sohini spent 10 years at Ashoka Innovators for the Public, and also worked as the India Strategy consultant at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network for its crucial first three years of launch. She is a founding trustee of reading India, and a board member of Dastkar, Kolkata Sanved, and Aakar Social Ventures.

You must be to comment.

More from India Development Review (IDR)

Similar Posts

By Yuvaniya

By Akash Raj

By Ritwik Trivedi

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below