Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s message on COVID-19 generates positive response: study

Video from Abhijit Banerjee has prompted many to report symptoms to frontline staff: Study

Updated - July 15, 2020 11:37 pm IST

Published - July 15, 2020 10:46 pm IST - Kolkata:

West Bengal Chief Minister with Nobel laureate and economist Abhijit Banerjee and his mother Nirmala Banerjee. File

West Bengal Chief Minister with Nobel laureate and economist Abhijit Banerjee and his mother Nirmala Banerjee. File

A video message by Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee on prevention of coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) has generated a positive response prompting more people to report symptoms to the frontline health staff, not to leave the villages and improve hygiene practices. These are the findings of a working paper by Prof. Banerjee, economist Esther Duflo (who shared the 2019 Economics Nobel with Prof. Banerjee) and others published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an American non-profit research organisation.

“An SMS was sent to 25 million individuals containing the 2.5-minute clip, delivered by West Bengal native and 2019 Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. All messages encouraged reporting symptoms to the local health worker,” the paper said. Mr. Banerjee is also the chair of the State government’s COVID-19 advisory board. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has held consultations with him on the management of pandemic.

Additional light-touch messaging

The working paper titled “Messages on COVID-19 Prevention in India Increased Symptoms Reporting and Adherence to Preventive Behaviors Among 25 Million Recipients with Similar Effects on Non-recipient Members of Their Communities” was aimed at looking into whether additional light-touch messaging by a credible individual would lead to a change in behaviour.

The document says in times of health crises, individuals are inundated with messages but one from credible individuals generates a positive response. “Our results demonstrate large effects of treatment with significant spillovers both from message recipients onto non-recipients and also onto behaviour that were not emphasised in the message,” the paper says.

During the experiment, the video message was sent via a link embedded in a text message to 25 million subscribers randomly selected out of 28 million subscribers. Experimental message treatments were randomised at the PIN code (Postal Index Number) level across 1,214 of the 1,264 PIN codes.

“All video messages instructed individuals with cough and fever to contact their local frontline health worker,” the paper says adding that the messages also contained eight different variants emphasising one practice (such as social distancing or hand-washing) and a social problem (either an explicit statement that ostracism of COVID-19 victims is unacceptable and should be reported to the authorities or no mention of the issue) among others.

Large direct and indirect effects

The results of the study revealed that reporting of symptoms to the frontline health workers, critical to the tracking of the epidemic, has doubled. It also indicated that rates of not leaving the village, washing hands and wearing masks have “improved significantly”. “Overall, the results show that even against a background of a high level of messaging, an additional message by a respected public figure can still have large direct and indirect effects,” the paper said.

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