The missing link in the fight against the dreaded Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Kenya might lie in the lack of effective communication.
Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country on March 13, the Government has not looked back in its fight against the pandemic. Guidelines, restrictions and bans have been sustained to minimise the spread of the disease.
However, there has been poor cooperation by many citizens who seem not to be reading from the same script with the Government. Some see the measures as too punitive. Others are accusing the Ministry of Health of treating them like children during the daily briefs to the country, by repeatedly reprimanding them.
On the other hand, the police, in enforcing the rules, are accused of having taken the opportunity to harass the public and solicit for bribes. The perception that is being created is that the Government is sometimes fighting its own people instead of the virus.
In this respect, the questions that beg answers are: Where did the Government go wrong and how can the situation be salvaged? Why would people ignore guidelines that have been put in place to protect them against a disease whose effects they can see all over the world?
It is my view that lack of effective communication may be the one missing link in the fight against the epidemic. The citizens might not be seeing the threat from the same perspective as their government.
Experts in risk communication observe that if messages are communicated effectively, people will start seeing the direct benefits of adhering to the guidelines for their own health and those of their families and fellow citizens.
The health professionals communicating messages about the coronavirus need to understand the basics of risk communication, which is very important in a crisis such as the one we are in. They should understand that not all risks are perceived equally by those affected.
Risk communication experts opine that some risks are more acceptable than others. For example, familiar risks are more readily accepted than exotic ones. In this case, seasonal flu can be easily accepted than a new respiratory disease like the coronavirus.
Also, natural risks are better tolerated than man-made risks. The perception created of the coronavirus is that of a man-made and unfamiliar risk. In in this case, messages relating to the pandemic may not be easily accepted by all citizens.
Rejection of messages
Health experts need to clearly communicate the cause of the virus. Otherwise, they risk continued rejection of the messages.
Health experts must understand that in a crisis, the first message to reach people always becomes the accepted ‘reality’. When new messages become available, they will often be weighed against the previous messages.
Therefore, when people are faced with a crisis, the speed of communication is key in reducing harm that may be caused by rumours. There have been lots of rumours about the causes and treatment of Covid-19.
To solve the problem of false information, messages should be simple, credible and consistent. An effective message should be repeated; should come from several sources; should be specific to the crisis being experienced; and should offer a course of action to be followed.
In a crisis, people want messages confirmed before taking action. They are likely to check on different television channels to confirm if the same message is repeated. They may contact friends and family to confirm if they have heard the same message, or they may turn to local opinion leaders for advice or check several social media platforms to see what other sources are saying. Therefore, in the current crisis, health experts should send consistent messages across all channels. They should also make use of opinion leaders and politicians to send the messages.
Since this is a new disease, communicators should try to acknowledge uncertainty by expressing empathy for the audience and explaining to them what the Government is doing to get the situation under control.
In a crisis, people may feel fear, anxiety and confusion, resulting in intense dread. While communicators might not make the feelings to go away, they can acknowledge the situation and empathise with the people. It is important to note that fear can motivate people to take desired action, but it can equally prevent them from doing so.
In a crisis, the aim of the messages is to persuade people to take the desired action, in this case to follow the government guidelines. Communicators can help by portraying accurate assessment of the level of danger and providing action messages so that the citizens do not feel helpless.
While communicating messages relating to Covid-19, health experts may need to avoid creating situations of hopelessness and helplessness. Hopelessness is the feeling that nothing can be done to improve the situation, while helplessness is the feeling that people have no power to change the situation or protect themselves. When people feel helpless, they might withdraw mentally and physically. These may be counterproductive in the fight against the pandemic.
Health experts need to reassure the citizens of the power they have within themselves to avoid the virus. They should also be told why their actions can help prevent the spread.
One thing that health experts need to appreciate is that during a crisis, people process information differently. People may simplify the information; they may hold on to current beliefs; they may look forward to additional information; or they may believe the first message.
It has been observed that under stress and information overload, people tend to miss the details of health and safety messages by not fully hearing the information as they normally would, and by misinterpreting action messages.
The problem can be solved by crafting simple messages which are targeted at specific groups of people. For example, specific messages can be packaged for the senior citizens, the youth and children. Cartoons can be designed to communicate messages targeted at children.
Finally, it is worth noting that crisis communicators must be alert to possible stigmatisation, especially when people associate the risk with a certain group of people. In the current situation, the risk of the coronavirus was at the onset associated with people who travel abroad and those who live in major towns. More recently, truck drivers are the target of stigmatisation. Crisis communicators should be ahead in crafting strong messages to prevent stigma.
Finally, one can say that all is not lost and the Government should be lauded for the measures it has so far put in place, which have immensely contributed to controlling further spread of the virus. Now that the World Health organisation (WHO) has warned that the disease might be around for some time, the only saviour in the meantime is adherence to guidelines and measures, and this must be effectively communicated.
Dr Stella Onyiego is a Senior Lecturer in Communications, Moi University