Strengthening risk communication for public health emergencies during COVID-19 outbreak

Md. Tarique Enam

The whole world became the hotspots for corona virus pandemic and all countries are traumatised, nowhere is a place where a seed of mustard can be thrown upon. The global leaders are helpless and have been forced to ponder over their strengths and weaknesses of their public health system in this capitalist era. Among the European Economic Area (EEA) countries the United Kingdom (UK), Italy, Spain, and France are still the highest cumulative COVID-19 deaths through pandemic first wave. After Europe, then Corona has geometrically spread in the United States of America (USA).As of now USA has more than one million COVID-19 patients, more than sixty thousand patients are died as a results of Corona infection(IHME, 2020).

India is not the different country, where Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) has slowly or gradually infected more than forty thousand individuals and recorded a tally of more than one thousand three hundred deaths. Now India has been continuously witnessing the increasing trends of COVID-19 cases. Amid corona virus transmission, another two weeks extension of lockdown may be helpful in containing COVID-19 transmission but huge influx of migrant workers and the persons who may start returning to native place. It may pose serious threat or further may create vulnerable situations for them or others, needs further introspection and redesign risk communication. Therefore this piece of writing has been focused on the importance of key aspects of risk communication for tackling COCID-19 during public health emergencies.

Risk communication systems for covid-19 pandemic
Communication is critical in any pandemic situation or emergency. Communities are at the front seat of any public health emergency or disaster. Those who are affected with the pandemic actually bear the heat of any disaster and the same time they are the first to respond the crises. They are actually the receiver of the immediate outcomes of the incidence. Therefore, any communication related to minimizing health risks or mitigating the impact of a emergency needs to be pinpointed in the context of the effected communication.

Risk communication and community engagement are critical aspects of public health emergency preparedness and response and therefore one of the important core capacities of the International Health Regulations (2005).Core capacities are risk communication systems, internal and partner coordination, public communication, community engagement and listening, and risky behaviour and misinformation. This area is considered as the strongest areas while risk communication systems are the weakest area and needs further strengthening. For strong and sustainable risk communication for public health emergencies, strong commitment is needed. Therefore; there is a strong need for advocacy to and sensitization of key policy-makers and decision-makers at country level regarding the importance and advantages of being prepared on risk communication plans and systems.

Community Engagement to enforce Risk communication and combating challenges
Risk communication and community engagement are critical aspects of public health emergency preparedness and response. The World Health Organization (WHO) defined risk communication as “the real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts, community leaders or officials and the people who are at risk, which is an integral part of any emergency response. It enables stakeholders to work together to address health-related issues and promote well-being to achieve positive health impact and outcomes. In this situation, all stakeholders namely PRI, CBOs/NGOs, AWW (Anganwari workers)/ANM, Social Workers, religious leaders, govt, and officials at the grass root levels can play as a catalyst agent in dissemination of key risk communication messages among the affected communities. This process of disseminating key messages have proved and have produced good results in the case of stop transmission of Polio (STOP) not only in India but also in world and also such process have brought evidence based result in SBBC programee of UNICEF in Purulia district (WB) in key behavior change messages viz., hand washing with soap at critical times etc.

Community engagement activities can take many forms and are usually described in terms of five levels of engagement (from least to most engage): information-giving, consultation, joint decision-making, acting together, and supporting independent community interests. Engaging with communities, local partners and other stakeholders may help to prepare and protect individuals, families and the public’s health staffs during response to COVID-19.Accordingly such network of communication may support to strengthen risk communication, community engagement staff and helps partners to develop, implement and monitor an effective action plan for communicating effectively with the public.

The communities’ cooperation depends on if they are aware and understand of what they need to do in this situation and then adhering to the preventive and protective measures. It will be possible only when people should take COVID-19 seriously and follows the guidelines and preventives measures prescribed by government and partner agencies. In an interconnected world, where rumours and fake news spread faster than the truth, ensuring that communities have correct information on key messages related to COOVID-19 is a growing challenge. To combat such kind of challenges, there are strong networks of AWW/ANM, community health workers and community health volunteers in place. There is further need to engage systematically and informed them and so that persuade communities to make them part of the public health emergency response process and solution.

Community engagement and risk communication go hand in hand, and can play a critical role in mitigating the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the context of Indian scenario. India’s healthcare system is grossly inadequate to provide quality infrastructure and manpower to millions of its citizens is well known. Nevertheless, India has been doing the best in containing COVID-19 by taking several preventive and curative measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. There is further need concrete action plan of public health emergency plan.

Risk communication and managing the infodemic
There are amalgamation of good and bad messages about COVID-19 outbreak and there is an over-abundance of information: some accurate and some not that makes it hard for people to believe..Due to the high demand for timely information about COVID-19,Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, technical risk communication and social media teams have designed FAQs and key messages to respond to myths and rumours.These myths are then refuted with evidence based information. WHO and partners are making public health information and advice on the COVID-19, including myth busters, available on social media channels (including, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn etc) and organizational websites.

To conclude this, now, it is very high time for all including governments to work together and collaborate with NGOs and CSOs, Social Workers and key stakeholders including PRI, religious leaders community leaders and frontline workers and medical staffs to fight against Covid-19 so that effective risk communication planning, implementation and monitoring of activities can be ensured. Improvements in these areas require an integrated and holistic approach.

Md.Tarique Enam, PhD scholar, Department of Social Work, MANUU, Gachibowli, Hyderabad, India-500032

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May 8, 2020

Tarique Enam

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