COVID-19 Crisis: Revisiting approaches to health communication campaign in times of a pandemic

By Stephen Osomba –April 17, 2020

By now, it is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our lives as well as businesses in many ways that we couldn´t have ever imagined. In the process, we have been set several steps back in our plans, both personal and organizational. Normal life as we know it, has come to a standstill.

However, careful not to leave everything to fate, governments around the world are battling with unprecedented challenges in managing the pandemic. Through respective health ministries, governments are disseminating information about the pandemic daily to keep the public informed and also to constantly remind them about the prescribed safety precautions.

Indeed, most governments have put their best foot forward and with the efforts of our very own, Cabinet Sectary for health, H.E Mutahi Kagwe, being recognized by the international press for his outstanding communication leadership in combating the pandemic.

Although, despite the spirited efforts put forth by the government, there has been a great deal of noncompliance by the public on health safety precautions advisories. From a general observational standpoint, the majority of people haven't grasped the seriousness of the situation with many willingly disregarding safety measures communicated by the government. Pleas to practice social distancing, sanitize, and wearing medical masks have largely gone unheeded even though the virus is substantially deadly. Cases of negligence like these are perhaps among the most frustrating aspects in health communication practice. Be that as it may, communication specialists charged with disseminating health communication should instead see through the obstacles hindering effective messaging.

Certainly, negligence by sections of the public brings to fore the role and approach to effective health communication campaigns in behaviour change. Conceivably, the two key questions one would ask at this juncture are: why are some members of the public not observing prescribed COVID-19 safety precautions even though it´s a dangerous flu? Is the communication approach taken by the government defective?

Communication Issues in COVID-19 Pandemic
Much of the ongoing communication affords around COVID-19 pandemic has focused on creating awareness particularly; what the virus is, how it spreads, what to do when infected and preventative measures that need to be taken. Currently, propagation of information is being done through mostly traditional media given their extensive reach. Even so, going by the noncompliance habits displayed by most public members, there is seemingly a disconnect between COVID-19 communications and the desired behaviour. Several factors might be contributing to the abandonment of safety measures, more so the most basic ones.

Majority of the people could still be ignorant about the dangers posed by COVID-19 with many perceiving it like a normal cold flu. This has been brought about by the substantial spread of misinformation throughout social media which is now markedly very pervasive. Consequently, it has led to confusion and mistrust of health authorities by the general public. As a result, health communication efforts by government and other relevant subject matter experts are being discounted as the accurate information is lost in a sludge of propaganda. While the government has been able to take action against some perpetrators of fake news, the internet is too large to be effectively supervised.

Furthermore, some members of the public wrongly assume that they aren´t susceptible to the virus and consequently downgrade the severity. The reduced perceived susceptibility and severity motivate them to disregard prescribed safety measures. This phenomenon has been well explained by the health belief model – a fundamental behaviour change theoretical framework used in most health communication campaigns.

Perhaps, the biggest drawback on the ongoing COVID-19 health communication campaign by the government has been a failure to accommodate and address the urgent needs of the vulnerable population. For the majority, they depend on daily wages and must go to work. Subsequently, they can't practise staying home to promote social distancing. The economic challenges they face also inhibit them from frequently washing their hands and wearing medical masks. This is further compounded by the fact that they don´t have savings to draw upon during a lockdown. These barriers haven´t been addressed effectively and given that swathes of the population are vulnerable, the health communication efforts have fallen short to some extent.

What´s the appropriate approach to health communication?
The gist of any health communication effort is to model positive behaviour. However, shepherding the desired action among the target audience is a daunting task as any communication specialist operating in behaviourism space would attest. To this end, it is important to take up a strategic, dynamic, nimble, and methodological approach when engaging in health communication campaigns. Nonetheless, there are no templates for executing health communication campaigns but rather general guidelines. This is because different health problems require tailored-made communication approaches due to the unique contextual factors that may prevail in a given environment. This calls for an understanding of the operating conventional wisdom, health concepts, language, social norms, and priorities for different cultures as well as settings. A further consideration is also given to health literacy, internet access, and media exposure.

A typical health communication campaign aims at increasing risk perception so that the target audience understand the severity of the disease and reinforcing the positive behaviours that mitigate the risks of infection. To plan and execute a successful campaign, either a short-term or long-term intervention, one needs to follow some basic general guidelines underpinned by the health belief model. The first step should entail gathering information to determine the specific communication needs. This involves conducting health needs assessments to establish a population that is at risk and should be targeted. The next step should involve conveying the consequences of the health issues associated with risk behaviours clearly and unambiguously so that target population understands the perceived severity. This should be followed by communicating to the target population the steps that are involved in taking the recommended action and highlighting the benefits to action. At this stage, it would be critical to conduct a campaign review to identify barriers to action and providing necessary support to overcome the identified obstacles. By addressing the barriers to promoted health behaviour, one enhances self-efficacy and the likelihood of successful behaviour changes.

Truly, there can never be a perfect health communication campaign. Each campaign is therefore unique and draws upon a different, special approach. In times of a pandemic, communication specialists need to be dynamic and agile in their execution throughout the crisis. Further, it is critical to constantly review ongoing communication efforts and make speedy adjustments to keep the campaign on track. If left unchecked, things can fall off the wagon real quick leading to a complete health disaster. The ongoing COVID-19 health communication campaign in Kenya haven´t dealt with all barriers to behaviour change and as a result, the efficacy is somehow limited. Granted, in any campaign, there is a need to focus on cues to action that are meaningful and appropriate for the target population as well as the need to increase the availability of support and needed services. This will go a long way in empowering individuals to change or improve their health conditions.

Stephen is a Communication & Marketing Specialist based in Nairobi