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Humanity is at the centre of an unprecedented pandemic waxed by the novel coronavirus. The most dangerous part of the COVID-19 reality is not the biological structure of the virus but how people react to it.
Across the world, COVID-19 has shown the capability to overwhelm health systems. This means that beyond health interventions, there is the need for a behavioural nudge and change across individual, community and society levels. Due to the magnitude of the pandemic and infodemic, people can also be overwhelmed by the impact of the virus. A major factor in tackling the pandemic, therefore, is how people react to the perceived and real risks of the virus.
As a core component of development communication, behavioural change can help reduce the spread of the pandemic by up to 80 per cent, according to the World Health Organisation in its Outbreak Communications Planning Guide. Hence, governments and health agencies must embrace holistic development communication strategies hinged on attitudinal and behavioural change to tackle the spread of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 communications strategy cannot and should not be limited to social media campaigns and hashtags, staggered media appearances and advertising slots, et al. It has to be a holistic, people-centric, dynamic, sustained and result-oriented strategy aimed at influencing desired attitudinal and behavioural changes via multi-dimensional tools.
People are at different risk levels from the virus, hence the need for distinctive audience mapping. This understanding helps to develop class-sensitive messages that resonate with the various layers of risk-prone people.
Messages must be developed with the end goal of influencing attitudinal and behavioural changes, noting that people have age-long behavioural practices and it will require trusted and concerted effort to nudge a change of those behaviours at personal, community and societal levels. Designing centralised media-centric messages, as we have observed, is not effective in addressing heterogeneous populations.
How do you design unilateral messages to people who are at high risk of the virus to take preventive measures and those who are not very vulnerable to the virus and do not feel any need to take personal or social responsibility against the virus?
Despite its global spread, millions of people, especially in developing countries, still believe that the coronavirus is nothing but a hoax popularised by government officials for selfish gains.
Beliefs such as this cannot be easily influenced nor changed with mere statistical data on confirmed cases of coronavirus patients and deaths.
In Nigeria, millions of citizens are defying government’s directive on social distancing, hygiene and public movement, largely because they are not convinced about the presence of the virus or the reported magnitude, a reflection of age-long citizen-government distrust.
Arguably, the presence, perplexity or otherwise of the coronavirus will not beat the distrust away so easily.
Trust, transparency and inclusion are essential in managing crisis communication. Governments and public health agencies need all the social capital and leverage they can get to reach out to the different layers of citizens. Engaging trusted voices in different circles and communities is important in development communication.
No campaign is as powerful as one that is collectively driven by a group of people who believe in the essence of the campaign. Inclusion, collective ownership and dynamism for solution are what development communication thrives on. It provides precision on foundational communication questions like what, why, who, where, when and how.
The global burden of COVID-19 can be drastically reduced by engaging development communication strategies such as behavioural change. Such strategies must be people-driven because they are at the centre of the pandemic. To tackle the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, governments and health agencies must nudge behaviours in the right direction at society, community and individual levels.
This is to a safer world void of COVID-19.
Tayo Elegbede is a communications consultant with vast experience in development communication, media and public relations and digital practice.
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