With India still reeling under the coronavirus, the media landscape should have been full of advertisements promoting the benefits of vaccination and the absolute importance of Covid-19-appropriate behaviour. But such campaigns are missing.

There are very few instances of advertisements that can be located in print media or on television or even radio. Also missing are billboards and posters. This silence over promoting Covid-appropriate behaviour is deafening.

Vaccine shortage, hesitancy

The second wave of the pandemic is receding – even as we wait for what the third wave will bring – and we are on the threshold of becoming “normal” and careless again. Lockdown fatigue and loss of income drive the urge towards “routine” behaviour and increased person-to-person proximity.

People are crowding markets, organising and attending mass functions – social, political and religious – and indulging in “revenge tourism”. The Maharashtra chief minister has wisely sought a national policy on political and religious gatherings.

It is an indisputable fact that the pandemic will end only when large numbers are vaccinated to break the chain of transmission, else the virus will infect and mutate into more variants. It is also an indisputable fact that our vaccination rates are far below what we need to vaccinate everyone by year-end (see here and here for more detailed analyses).

The blame game whether it is vaccine shortage or mismanagement by states is misleading. The hard facts on the ground are that there are many days when vaccination centres remain closed because of the non-availability of doses.

A mural on a wall in Mumbai. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

It is heartening to note that the Union government has ordered almost 100 crore vaccine doses which are expected to become available in the period from August to December. Assuming all goes as per plan, and vaccine shortages are overcome, what happens when vaccine hesitancy becomes a bottleneck and people refuse to take vaccine shots? This scenario is being witnessed in many parts of the US, especially states that vote Republican, where people are refusing to take vaccine shots. Vaccine hesitancy is prevalent in our country as well – amongst the poor and the well off.

There is, thus, an urgent need to promote Covid-19-appropriate behaviour and overcome vaccine hesitancy, even while vaccine shortages are being addressed. One way of doing this is to use coercive measures to enforce vaccinations and safe behaviour. But coercion is not the way to go.

It is neither ethically advisable nor effective as a strategy especially when access to the vaccine is not equitable.

What should be done is to communicate the issues of concern through creatively crafted media campaigns.

Diversionary public discourse

Unfortunately, current public discourse is diversionary and full of contradictory forecasts. One says the third wave of infections will be mild, another says it will be intense. These just add to the scepticism about “expert speak” and a general feeling that “no one seems to know anything”.

Then there are many instances where ministers and ministries express concern or issue warnings. These one-off utterances serve a limited public purpose unless they are followed up with action to make an impact on the ground. Simply stating “beware of the third wave”, “too many cases are worrisome”, or “too much crowding is cause for worry” hardly leaves anything lasting in public memory. It creates even more confusion in the public mind when state agencies themselves are so eager to permit religious congregations and yatras, some of which have not come to pass only because of the intervention of the Supreme Court.

The other obsession in public narratives is about the relative number of infection cases across different states. There are states with a low reported case count versus those where the numbers remain high. But much of this depends upon which state is testing how much. This game of “my state is better than yours” occupies a great deal of mindspace when we cannot even be sure how reliable these statistics are.

Instead of these facile narratives, there is a need to fill the public discourse with meaningful and actionable information.

A mural on a wall in Mumbai. Credit: Naresh Fernandes

Public service messaging

Public messaging seems to be almost completely absent, especially that sponsored by the state or its agencies. The only ubiquitous one seems to be on mobile phones – what we hear when we initiate a call – exhorting people to leave home only if it is urgent and to get vaccinated at the earliest.

There is hardly anything on television, just a couple of advertisements that play out a few times in a week. There is a similar paucity within print media. There seems to be some effort by private entities.

Here is a Google ad for India (here is a US version), and this is a telethon-based “vaccinate India” campaign by NDTV – but this is not a running advertisement. Dainik Bhaskar also ran a campaign promoting vaccinations on their 21st anniversary.

Some brands have taken to raising awareness about vaccinations and hesitancy on social media – mostly Instagram. A bunch of them may be found here.

Government agencies seem to focus more on providing statistics about the number of cases, recoveries, vaccinations, that too mostly on social media (or through press releases). The obsession continues to be with the #LargestVaccinationnDrive. In the print media too the focus has not been on messaging but on promoting the ruling party and congratulating Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A majority of posters and hoardings seem to follow the same approach (see here for what a Google search reveals).

India’s polio campaign

Some state governments have been putting out print and television advertisements, but these are very few. Ideally, there should have been a blitzkrieg of public messaging amidst a raging pandemic, but it is missing.

The campaigns to eradicate polio from India were some of the best (see here for some examples). Incidentally, even during the pandemic, we saw more ads on polio compared to Covid-19 vaccines. A similar kind of energy and success can be seen in the advertisements promoting tuberculosis awareness and treatment.

The campaigns to eradicate polio from India were some of the best.

In order to combat vaccine hesitancy, we need media campaigns that provide information about vaccine safety and effectiveness as well as its benefits. These should be pitched in a manner that confronts typical anti-vaccine misinformation. A local component providing information about vaccination centres and how to access these will enable great traction.

Distancing and mask

Campaigns that educate about the basics of how masks work, what is a proper design and how they should be worn properly. The level of carelessness can be seen in the manner people actually wear masks – hanging on the chin (as if they have some magical power irrespective of the way they are worn!), often below the nose and frequently made of fabric that is loose and hardly seals anything.

Instructional – how to use – videos hosted on government websites and social media channels, print ads, posters and hoardings with relevant instructions displayed in attractive graphics should all be deployed. To sustain the campaign, free masks should be made available at all public offices and sold cheaply at ration shops.

A similar educational media campaign is required to explain the importance of maintaining a basic minimum distance from other people, the importance of ventilation and the preferred use of open spaces for person-to-person interactions.

Practical tips about these, in the varying contexts of the home, the office and community spaces will be of immense use. It is also important to “remind” people that their own reckless behaviour in public is a threat to the health of others.

Perhaps, there is also a need to assess if campaigns that combine a bit of fear with reassurance are also needed to aid the fight against Covid-19. The anti-tobacco ads of recent vintage used this strategy fairly effectively.

These featured images of people afflicted with assorted cancers are shown on cigarette packs as well as in print and television ads (the exhibition of these ads in cinema halls made them quite well known). A similar approach could be used to create carefully calibrated public service advertisements that show the kind of havoc that Covid-19 can create.

Weaving in testimonies of people who have suffered the infection into such advertisements should also be quite effective. It will address the scepticism of people who still think that Covid-19 is manufactured hysteria or it is just a flu.

Creative advertisements

We have some of the most creative advertisement agencies. This is an opportunity for them to create appealing advertisements. This is also the time for private corporations to spend a part of their advertising budgets (and, perhaps, Corporate Social Responsibility budgets) on public service messaging in the fight against Covid-19.

The example of the “It’s Up To You” campaign promoted by the Ad Council – a non-profit with representatives from consumer brand companies, tech firms and media outfits in the United States - should be inspiring. And, of course, where are our celebrities who sell us any and everything on a good day? It is important that they contribute strongly to this cause.

The department of Human Health Services in the US has started a $250 million “We Can Do This” public education campaign about Covid-19 (see here for what resources it has created). Campaigns have also been released in the European Union. Here is what the French government is doing and on social media:

The Australian government has launched a campaign to promote vaccination and will be spending 24 million Australian dollars on it. The collection of resources hosted by the Center for Disease Control in the US – videos, multilingual public service announcements – that can be used for advertising and education campaigns is truly impressive.

Anurag Mehra is a Professor at IIT Bombay. He works in policy areas relating to higher education and digital media. His blog can be read here.