Public Health Communication for COVID-19: Can professional health associations in India do more?

 

The glimmer of hope provided by the damping down of the COVID-19 epidemic curve in China is being compensated for by the rapid rise of the number of cases and deaths in Italy, Iran, and South Korea, with WHO’s risk assessment in China, the Regional Level and the Global Level remaining ‘Very High’. India, a country of 1.3 billion people and an immediate neighbour to China, has been bracing for impact. As of 15th March, 2020, India has reported a total of 93 cases, with 2 deaths. Hospital isolation of the cases, tracing and home quarantine of their contacts are ongoing. A nationwide network of 52 laboratories have tested a total of 4,058 samples from 3,404 individuals, till 6th March, 2020. A total of 1,229,363 passengers from over 10,000 flights have been screened. Visas for almost all in-bound travelers stand suspended.

Given the pan-India risk presented by the current COVID-19 situation, risk communication to a diverse, at-risk population assumes an important role in containment of the infection. As a concerned group of community physicians, we urge the national-level associations of Community Medicine, Public Health, and other Health Professionals, to undertake a concerted effort to counter the stream of misinformation on COVID-19 in the mainstream Indian media.

Few pandemics have been watched so closely by experts and lay audiences alike. With such close observation, compounded by insufficient knowledge on the novel disease, came tidal waves of speculation. Viral messages on social media spread faster than the viral contagion. Even the WHO Director General warned about the “infodemic” of unreliable information about the disease at the Munich Security Conference on 15th February, 2020.

In India, efforts to develop information materials have come up from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the Government of India’s Press Information Bureau. Overseas, agencies like the American Public Health Association (APHA), the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) have come up with a host of products to support the public dissemination of verified information. At this juncture, the Community Medicine and other professional health associations can step up action to amplify the ongoing efforts and provide contextual insights.

An aspect of concern to us has been the profusion of individual-centric healthcare information about COVID-19 in the media. Issues of wider community concerns, such as safe disposal of used masks, individual and community preparedness, and community ownership of preventive practices, have not found their deserving space in the media discourses. We would also like to see more transparent declaration of conflicts of interests in such media exercises, which are often led by corporate healthcare celebrities. Rather than focusing on the effective preventive measures, which work well at the individual, as well as the population level, the emphasis on alarmist messages such as lack of a specific treatment or vaccine, has also contributed to the restlessness in the lay public.

Map of the 2019-nCoV outbreak in India as of 8 March 2020
Map of the 2019-nCoV outbreak in India as of 8 March 2020

 

To address this restiveness, the networks of the professional organizations of various health and allied disciplines can be leveraged as activated channels of communication under the unified banner of Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine (IAPSM) and Indian Public Health Association (IPHA). These professional bodies, formed majorly by Community Medicine and Public Health experts, have the training and expertise to strategically plan and implement consistent behavior change management and public health communication packages. Despite almost 1,000 specialists being inducted annually into the disciplines of Community Medicine, the strength of the discipline at health prevention, containment and promotion remains under-acknowledged and consequently, under-utilized.  A single banner for all communication, complementing the Government’s efforts while adapting international messaging systems to the local context, can be a novel avenue to explore for allaying public fear amidst multiple channels of inconsistent professional messaging and rumor ‘infodemic’.

These professional associations can capitalize on social networking and engagement with the public, while stepping up efforts at advocacy, public relations and risk communication through a concerted and harmonized mobilization of community medicine and allied health practitioners spread across the country. These efforts shall give scale and depth to the Government’s efforts, by helping bring the message to the communities and the individuals at risk. The reach of the professional associations across age-groups and client profiles, and their mandate to operate without commercial interests would lend further credence to the messaging.

The COVID-19 experience emphasizes the need for the Community Medicine and other associated professional agencies in India to develop a trained cohort of human resources, which could be pressed into rapid action whenever the nation faces similar threats to population health.  As public health practitioners, teachers, and researchers working in India, we call on the major associations of community medicine and associated disciplines to come out with a unified program to support the ongoing efforts at countering the slew of misinformation. If these bodies lead, the impact of individual flag bearers, whose efforts will likely be disconcerted, inadequate, and rather chaotic, can be structured. As professional organizations with a mission to help the public health system in tackling such diseases, let us spring into action, counter the misinformation infodemic and provide valuable support at multiple levels through rumor dispelling, health education materials, guideline preparation, preparedness assessment, surveillance, real time data collection and analysis, participation in rapid response teams, and support advocacy and coordination with different agencies.

About the authors

This is a call for action by public health professionals from India. A list of signatories is provided. **

  1. Jaya Singh Kshatri, Odisha
  2. MalateshUndi, Karnataka
  3. Anuj Mundra, Maharashtra
  4. Praveen Kulkarni, Karnataka
  5. Pritam Roy, New Delhi
  6. Madhur Verma, New Delhi
  7. Harshvardhan Singh, Himachal Pradesh
  8. Gitismita Naik, Chhatisgarh
  9. Antony Stanley, Kerala
  10. Anirban Chatterjee, Madhya Pradesh
  11. Aftab Ahmed, New Delhi
  12. Pranab Chatterjee, New Delhi
  13. Archisman Mohapatra, New Delhi

** Opinions expressed are those of the authors , and does not reflect any policies, opinions, or positions held by their employers, or institutions which they are affiliated to.

Competing interests : We have read the BMJ Conflict of Interests policy and declare that all authors are members of the professional associations who are being called to rise up and meet the challenge of COVID-19. The authors have no other conflicts of interest to declare.

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