COVID-19: The communication crisis

May 20, 2020

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Communication does not work in a vacuum. When nations are scrambling to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, strategies to relay safety measures have to take into account the worldview of the recipients.

Misinformation and rumours surrounding COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges in fighting the pandemic. Safety guidelines were developed to inform citizens, but how effectively have they been communicated? A rapid qualitative research looked into how people in certain target groups in Bangladesh have understood and implemented these guidelines in their daily lives.

The research was conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, in partnership with researchers from the University of Sussex, and University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. A total of 82 respondents were included in the research, and findings were based on in-depth telephonic interviews, netnography (observing behaviour on social media) and shadow participant observation. Respondents were from rural villages, district towns, urban slums, and urban middle class in Dhaka.

Read more: COVID-19: Update from Asif Saleh (16 May 2020)

The aim of the research was to determine the common misconceptions and interpretations about the messaging around the virus – are people clear about the information they received? Do they believe them to be valuable and trustworthy?

Home: A definitional crisis

Most of the urban middle class in Dhaka understand home as their individual apartment or building, but the study found that they were the only group of respondents who did.

For the other groups in the research, the definition of ‘home’ was not as clear.

Rural societies are based on a culture of proximity, where the concept of home encompasses a village. Respondents from rural villages had varied interpretations of what home is – it is ghor (house), bari (house, property), and para (neighbourhood).

People living in district towns interpreted home as moholla, which means community. For people living in urban slums, home is interpreted as the alleyways between households.

Thus, the contextual translations of home renders any “stay at home” order as confusing for people living in rural villages and urban slums.

Claustrophobic, disrespectful, impossible

As most developed nations continue some sort of lockdown or social distancing measure, there is global fatigue, which is being shared by respondents from Dhaka’s urban middle class, who stated that social distancing feels claustrophobic.

Respondents living in district towns and rural villages have said the concept of social distancing is seen as being disrespectful among their communities.

For people living in urban slums, where as many as 322,000 people live in each square mile, a single corridor is home to eight to 10 families. Social distancing is impossible.

Many view the lockdown and social distancing measures as administrative orders by the government, as opposed to life-saving measures for themselves and the country. This results in people avoiding compliance in ways so as to not get caught.

Handwashing and the mystery of masks

The respondents were unclear about whether to wash hands 20 times or 20 seconds, indicating a general confusion around the technique and duration of washing hands. A majority of the communication around handwashing has been urban based, illustrating tap water, whereas only about 15% of the population has access to tap water. All respondents noted the overemphasis of the use of soap in communication materials.

Read more: Building capacity of community health workers remotely

The global confusion around the effectiveness of the masks has seeped into the community level. Many respondents believe that only N-95 masks are effective, and there is disinterest in masks that are presumed to be of lesser quality. People wear masks in order to fulfill government orders, and often remove them during interpersonal interactions.

For some respondents, wearing a mask is seen as antisocial behaviour or apathy. Some are noting that masks are instruments to hide identity during unlawful acts, as crimes begin to rise in some neighbourhoods.

Contingency plans

The study found that respondents across all groups do not have a clear idea about what to do if a member of their household gets infected, and there is deep uncertainty about treatment. The IEDCR’s hotlines are seen as the main point of contact for reporting suspected cases among the respondents.

People living in villages, towns and urban slums are relying on local pharmacies, nearby health centres, local medical colleges, and district hospitals. People from the urban middle class in Dhaka plan on contacting doctors in their family or their social circles for advice.

Information in pandemic

State-run television channel BTV, local mosques, messages played on microphones on streets and interpersonal discussions are some of the places residents of rural villages are getting their information from.

Respondents living in urban slums rely on cable television, social media, their employers and interpersonal discussions. People of the urban middle class get their information from international media (such as BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera), online discussions and social media.

The study noted an info-demic taking place as excessive amounts of confusing and ambiguous information abound. Sensationalist news is on television, rumours are on social media, contradictory statements are being spread by some religious leaders.

In a constantly evolving situation, messaging about COVID-19 needs to be accurate and clear. The research suggests clearly defining the terms such as ‘social distancing,’ ‘quarantine,’ ‘lockdown,’ in local context and aligned with the target populations’ lifestyles. Guidelines developed in the West may not work in the global south, and thus cannot be transferred without critically analysing them in the local geographic, economic and cultural contexts.

Read more: BRAC’s lessons from Ebola for COVID-19: How to support a country to recover after a pandemic

Sources of information for people vary across location, class, age and level of education. The researchers suggest that messaging is developed separately for people living in slums, villages, towns and urban middle-class, and distributed through respective channels of communication. In the midst of growing panic, TV channels must remain careful about broadcasting unnecessary news. There is also a great need to promote positive news to instill hope in communities.

How information is sent to citizens plays a role in how they will understand something that could save their lives. Different understandings will result in different behaviours. If instructions are not able to convey the messages intended, it is important to reorient the ways in which they have been packaged.

Shahaduz Zaman is Reader in Medical Anthropology and Global Health Global Health and Infection Department, Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Din M Sumon Rahman is Faculty Member, Media Studies and Journalism, University of LIberal Arts Bangladesh. Imran Matin is Executive Director, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development. Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, BRAC Communications.

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