India and COVID-19: A communication failure
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India and COVID-19: A communication failure

By Vincent Rajkumar

As India grapples with COVID-19, confused and often disempowering communication has aggravated our present predicament.

The Indian Prime minister’s address to the nation managed to turn a state of public health crisis into a state of collective paranoia. For a consummate communicator like him, his address to the nation was a model of how not to communicate during a health emergency. The Prime minister chose to give Indians barely a four-hour notice. He did not share facts about the government’s level of preparedness, nor did he comfort the public regarding the quality of our doctors and medical researchers. He did not explain what would be permitted in this “curfew-like” lockdown, resulting in a late night raid on markets. Worse, he did not offer any assurance to the most vulnerable people that the government would look after their food and other basic requirements, resulting in an exodus of thousands of poor migrants.

During times of crisis, the government has to over-communicate. It, however, chose to under-communicate. This lopsided communication has caused severe suffering among the poor, especially migrant workers, and has been unsuccessful in the primary objective of enforcing social distancing. Those in charge should realise that poorly communicated or insufficient information directly impacts disease control. It results in stigma, fear and poor health-seeking behaviour, and increases vulnerability. It also causes lopsided reporting, theorising and fake news.

At the height of a national emergency, the system is focused on Public Relations rather than governance. The government should have begun a media engagement strategy, along with a multilingual, information campaign on every aspect of the crisis. The response should have been communicated in painstaking detail to the implementers, the media and the public. Instead the government went into an appeal to the Apex court to restrain the media from reporting or publishing “anything” without ascertaining the factual position from the government.

This plea of the Indian government indicates a democratic deficit in the executive in realising the role of the media during a pandemic and the necessity for a credible information ecosystem. While the apex court upheld the right to free discussion about Covid-19, it also directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of the developments in order to avoid inaccuracies and large-scale panic. Herein lies the catch. It is a fact that fake news and deliberate misleading of the public happens from the top, and often through people who wield power. The government doesn’t seem to realise that India’s people are more vulnerable to incorrect information if the government and the media do not give them the right information first.

Within this ample framework of complexity, we are involved in research addressing media impact and its role during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the following subtopics:

  • Effective health communication for the adoption of sustainable preventive measures and curtailing misinformation;
  • Public health communication to increase psychological resources and resilience in distinct age groups and socioeconomic conditions;
  • Effective strategies for helping individuals in dealing with social and physical distancing;
  • Reduction of stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and inequalities.

As we engage in these aspects, we involve in the relief activities that we undertake at this moment with people of all faiths to look after the basic needs of the migrant workers who are either on roads or in temporary sheds at various places. Passing on information at this stage is a really difficult one but social media helps us in coordinating our efforts and also in our communication. ν

Vincent Rajkumar is Director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, India.

Photo: Bharuch, Gujarat, India—People helping the needy by supplying food during lockdown during COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Kunal Mahto/Shutterstock 

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