Awareness Campaigns on COVID-19 Must Address Indian Socio-Cultural Factors

As we stand at the threshold of fighting a highly contagious virus, we cannot import Western models of health communication and apply them blindly in the Indian context.

What is the one thing that Indians need to beat before they can succeed in combatting any disease? Be it cancer, depression or COVID-19, we first need to fight the social stigma associated with all such ailments.

The Indian government and health authorities will achieve better results in getting people to be transparent about reporting COVID-19 symptoms if they run campaigns that address the social stigma associated with the disease. With so much social stigma associated with COVID-19, people may be tempted to conceal their symptoms. They may also flee quarantine facilities and isolation wards at hospitals, creating an arduous task for authorities who must not only start tracing them but also the people they have interacted with.

As we stand at the threshold of fighting a highly contagious virus, we cannot import Western models of health communication and apply them blindly in the Indian context. We need to take Indian socio-cultural factors into account while formulating campaigns to fight COVID-19.

Social stigma and “face saving” have always been a defining feature of our society. We have often been more concerned about other people’s response to our ailment than the ailment itself. Concerns about social stigma often influence decisions about our health. This needs to change. To fight a virus at this scale, people need to beat stigma and social ostracisation at every level.

Reduce the fear of medical isolation

Apart from running campaigns that aim at reducing social stigma associated with COVID-19 on all forms of media including newspapers, radio, television, mobile phones, etc., the Indian government needs to destigmatise the concept of isolation as well. Campaigns need to highlight that isolation is a mere medical necessity to beat COVID-19. It is not a death sentence. Neither is it a punishment meted out by state authorities for those that happen to catch the virus.

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People need to be convinced that although it is extremely difficult to be separated from one’s family members and spend time in an isolation ward, it represents the only road to cure and good health. It’s the only way a person can protect their family members from the virus and give themselves a chance at recovery.

Establish communication protocols for people waiting to be tested at hospitals

The Indian news media have reported several cases where people have fled hospitals while waiting to be tested for COVID-19. Such cases need to be thoroughly analysed and the communication gaps identified. Just what were these people told at the hospital? How were they treated? What are the possible circumstances that made them flee when they had voluntarily reached the hospitals to be tested?

A nationwide communication protocol for suspected cases of COVID-19 needs to be established at the hospital level. Such a policy will be easier to implement if we have specially designated COVID-19 hospitals. Patients must also realise the scale of the emergency and cooperate in every way possible with doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to treat people with COVID-19.

Involve women in the design and implementation of COVID-19 awareness campaigns

Gender also needs to be considered while formulating guidelines on COVID-19. Women in all Indian households do not have equal access to health workers to report their symptoms or get the necessary medical care. One way to tackle the issue is to involve more women in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

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If more women, especially from disadvantaged sections of society, are involved in the design and dissemination of awareness campaigns on COVID-19, executing the guidelines will become easier at the household level. Health workers can also tap into women’s informal networks to spread information on the virus. Awareness campaigns can also highlight ways in which women can use all available resources.

Spread awareness about COVID-19 in rural areas as well

While the government is making the right move by focusing on cities and towns which pose serious risks, our villages are also not safe from the virus. Once a disease starts being transmitted at the community level, it’s important to spread awareness about it in both urban and rural spaces.

Here is an account from an IT professional who left his job in Bangalore and lives in a village in Odisha for the past one year:

“I…notice that they don’t even relate to it [COVID-19] as a real problem as nothing like this has ever been experienced in their lifetime… Nor have they been exposed to history of such pandemics…They don’t relate to things like staying alone without any wages.”

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Hence, the government needs to intensify awareness efforts in villages and small towns. Awareness campaigns must also consider poverty and the deep social inequalities that characterise Indian society while communicating norms and expectations. For instance, we need to identify ways in which social distancing can be practiced in congested localities and communicate those to the public.

Similarly, it’s not enough to emphasise that people should not panic as grocery shops will remain open during the lockdown. It’s also important to find a way in which essential commodities can be delivered to people who cannot leave their homes during the lockdown. Attention to these concrete details will greatly determine the outcome of our fight against COVID-19.

Smeeta Mishra is a communication and media studies consultant with a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and has taught communication at management institutes such as IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta.