Leveraging the Community's Commitment to Uninterrupted Health and Nutrition Services During COVID-19, Health News, ET HealthWorld

By Noveena Swapnabh & Riya Gupta

Since its outbreak, COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on public health systems, livelihoods and economies, further marginalizing vulnerable communities around the world. In this scenario, community willingness to manage risk through the dissemination of accurate information is essential. A socially coherent and informed response to COVID-19 can effectively disrupt the chain of transmission and mitigate the impact of the pandemic, especially in terms of the way “risks” are communicated.

Countries around the world, including India, continue to face challenges and gaps in communication of risks during the pandemic. First, the aggressive distribution of cell phones through traditional media has created significant behavioral incentives in people’s access to and reliance on health information. Second, there are gaps because risk perception and the associated risk reduction behavior are deeply rooted in the socio-cultural fabric. In this regard, communication efforts around the social constructivist approach must be considered with a careful assessment of stigma, risk-promoting social norms, and counterproductive decision-making contexts.

Transparent public health messages in local languages, along with clear channel identification, can create effective risk communication. This includes harnessing community engagement, engaging local influencers, building the capacity of local agencies and building trust in health and social protection systems. Many states in India have used existing platforms to provide services during COVID-19, despite being badly hit by the outbreak.

For example, the state’s Integrated Child Development Program (ICDS) ensured the continuous supply and provision of take-home rations (THR) and used Anganwadi Workers (AWW) as a channel to maximize public relations. As part of the Supplementary Nutrition Program (SNP), Bihar has partnered with the Milk Cooperative Association to distribute milk in Anganwadi Centers (AWCs). In Gujarat, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and the Manavata Trust have taken the initiative as part of the “Palak Vali” program to distribute POSHAN kits to malnourished children (3-6 years old). Communities, Panchayati Raj institutions and frontline workers in Kanpur Dehat, UP came together to identify and manage the reception of migrants for THR services.

These interventions show how effective interpersonal communication through FLWs and the collaboration of critical community stakeholders can strengthen the fight against a public health emergency such as COVID-19. Such efforts encourage the uptake of nutrition and health services among beneficiaries during the pandemic and teach healthy behavior.

A similar approach can help build confidence in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in India. The success story of a remote tribal belt in the Melghat Forest in Maharashtra shows how culturally relatable measures can reverse vaccination skepticism. The involvement of local stakeholders such as Primary Health Center (PHC) advisors, village police officers and the delivery of messages through videos and a playbook in the local Korku language brought the community together and trust the vaccination process.

Therefore, health and nutritional messages need to be developed that take into account the mode of delivery and understand the target audience’s behavioral pattern. A few steps can make a big contribution to expanding community work to the rural level:

  1. Leverage local champions such as PRIs, Self-Help Groups (SHGs), religious leaders, and community health workers to hold regular meetings under COVID-19 protocols to bridge the knowledge gap between communities and build local trust.
  2. Dissemination of key nutrition and health messages to beneficiaries through the stakeholders identified above.
  3. Identified stakeholders to carry out a comparative risk analysis by assessing current and past risks together. It would help dispel myths and misinformation while allowing the public to have a more rational perception of risk.
  4. Choosing the right communication channels for the target group, beneficiaries and health workers.

Traditional media is still a popular medium, but the latest digital data reflects a different picture. Social media users in India increased by 78 million between 2020 and 2021. Communicating with beneficiaries on WhatsApp through direct messages, videos, images, infographics and GIFs is proving to be more and more effective. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be used for proactive campaigns. Mixing content of videos, photos, polls, and live tweets using relevant hashtags and tags can help reach key policy-making stakeholders. These platforms serve as an inexpensive way to inform, motivate and convey the key messages to the beneficiaries.

As we continue to face unprecedented times with COVID-19, clear and pertinent public health guidance from regionally specific stakeholders is imperative. When public health interventions are properly contextualized, risk perception becomes an emotional response as the target audience relate to behavioral acts with coherence and confidence.

Authors: Noveena Swapnabh and Riya Gupta. Noveena is a communications specialist and Riya is Research and Content Development Officer in the WeCan project at IPE Global Limited. The views expressed here are personal.

(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are exclusive to the author and ETHealthworld.com does not necessarily subscribe to them. ETHealthworld.com is not responsible for any damage caused directly or indirectly to any person / organization.)