Over the past few decades, public health emergencies across the globe have shown us that a timely and efficient risk communication plan could help in minimising fatalities and managing situations on the ground. In unprecedented circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic, implementing effective communication methods becomes even more necessary.

At the start of the pandemic, it was critical for the Union government to use all means to convey the gravity of the situation to the public. To do so, several communication plans were devised in order to maximise efficiency while minimising casualties.

In the last one-and-a-half years, the government’s plan for effective communication has been full of botches and has resulted in very few accomplishments.

Unclear message

Let us start with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Janta Curfew” and “Taali, Thaali Bajao’’ initiative. Just when the situation had begun to deteriorate, this mega home-bound event had lowered the severity of the problem. Many individuals treated it as if it were a festival, oblivious to the risk. The unclear message about why one needed to stay at home, created massive confusion.

This had its own set of consequences. In various instances, the curfew ended up with large groups of people congregating to clap/ring bells. Such was not a desired outcome. Lack of clarity in communication on the intent of why one needed to practice social distancing disregarded the gravity of the issue.

On April 2, 2020, the Centre launched Aarogya Setu, an official smartphone app for contact tracing, mapping and self-assessment. The application was made necessary in order to encourage “community-led tracing” and assist authorities in limiting the rate of virus propagation. Although the application was an admirable attempt in and of itself, its usefulness and data security have always been a point of contention.

India has a low teledensity, more prominently in the rural regions. And hence, health surveillance using a digital application is extremely impeding in India. Moreover, the requirement of switching on GPS/ and Bluetooth all time raised serious concerns over the data privacy of individuals.

The concept of “social distancing” was immensely new and alienating to most people in the country. There was a barrage of messages on every channel urging people to practice it, but none of them explained what it was or why we needed to follow it. Even the term “quarantine” was never explained in any communication message with rationality and logic.

People started placing hashtags and GIFs on the term “social distancing” on social media because it was so ambiguous and widely used that they did not realise why they were doing it. Not to forget, the term came with a privilege. Hundreds of thousands of daily wage workers moved back to their homes during the lockdown – not caring about the physical distancing at that point in time.

Abrupt lockdown

The messages overflowing with an urge to practise “social distancing” did not acknowledge the fact that it would be impossible for an average Indian to actually practice it with a limited amount of resources and facilities at hand.

The unexpected announcement of a 21-day lockdown did not include the preventive measures that would be taken to care for those who rely on their daily work to support themselves. Furthermore, the information was delivered in such a way that nothing appeared to be wrong with the situation.

Lakhs of daily wage workers moved back to their homes during the abrupt lockdown. Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

States like Maharashtra and Kerala, on the other hand, were quite successful in providing people with transparent, clear and correct information using engaging and comprehensive communication methods. In the event of a health emergency, communication messages are intended to increase people’s trust in the government. The situation, however, went awry due to a lack of clarity and transparency.

Another essential aspect that was overlooked was the translation of scientifically rigorous material into plain language that could be understood by anyone. The Union government’s messaging on how to wash hands, why it is important, what a virus is and how it spreads and specifics on pneumonia and black fungus were not clear. People were urged to wear masks but many did not comprehend why we needed to do so and, as a result, did not appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Lack of inclusivity

Like any other country, India does have marginalised and vulnerable groups – on the basis of caste, class, geographical locations and employment. The posters, social media images posted, did not address the issue of inclusivity of marginalised groups. People with disabilities and working communities such as sex workers, street vendors and daily wage labourers have faced challenges that are vastly different from those faced by the middle class.

Of course, the communications they received were not intended for them. Even promoting the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package on Social Media hardly made any sense. There was no indication of how this would be executed or how the poor would be able to access the benefits that were intended for them. The generalisation of messages, not keeping the diversity of people in mind was one of the biggest communication failures of the government.

An early, proactive and inclusive approach in risk communication could have helped in reducing the number of people who were sick and the mortality rate.

In India’s case, people were simply requested to follow some instructions throughout the ongoing pandemic, with no explanation as to why they were required to do so. Also, people receive messages in various different ways and hence in a country as diverse as India, an all community inclusive communication strategy becomes the need of the hour.

India should learn to be proactive in its communication strategy, otherwise, it will simply be attempting to catch up with the circumstances and failing miserably. In order to respond effectively in the future, it is essential to recognise the importance of an all-inclusive communication strategy, otherwise, history will repeat itself.

Mahek Nankani is an Assistant Program Manager at The Takshashila Institution.