In India’s response, a communications failure

The messaging lacks transparency or empathy

Updated - April 16, 2020 01:20 am IST

Published - April 16, 2020 12:05 am IST

A billboard in Mumai, Maharashtra.

A billboard in Mumai, Maharashtra.

As India grapples with COVID-19 , a widely prevalent belief is that the crisis is purely driven by the disease. However, the truth is that confused, and often disempowering communication, has contributed equally to our present predicament.

That India has no crisis communication strategy was evident from the government’s request to the Supreme Court to curb the media from publishing or broadcasting news on the pandemic, without checking facts with them. The question then arose, was the government giving the media or the people enough information? This is a time when the government needs to be forthcoming and transparent in its communications. It should also use the media as an ally to broadcast its messages and, at the same time, take steps to pull down fake, misleading and alarmist news. Every daily briefing should be used as an opportunity for engagement, not circumvention. The more information the government gives, the less speculation and rumours will circulate. The government has done the exact opposite. It has not created even a single central repository of public information and communication that speaks credibly, directly and continuously to people. As a result, there was and remains confusion, on the transmission data and facts; on the measures to self-protect; and most importantly, on the support, if any, the government is going to offer.

Media engagement strategy

The government should also 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.

During times of crisis, the government has to over-communicate. It, however, chose to under-communicate. 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. In fact, during health crises, populations absorb health information better if it is communicated frequently, and from reliable sources. This is where our communications response is failing.

Interactive map of confirmed coronavirus cases in India | State-wise tracker for coronavirus cases, deaths and testing rates

Also, missing in India’s approach is empathy and efforts to improve social cohesion and connectedness. The media could be a critical ally here. Already, certain communities have become the object of blame. If India continues with this approach, all it will be left with is an atmosphere which makes everyone look out for themselves. Finally, the government should stop underestimating the audience. It 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.

It’s a mystery as to how with such a large and vibrant media landscape, the government wants to control information and, at the same time, give out unimaginative and disempowering messages. For a young media-centric country gripped by crisis, this strategy is all wrong. Underlying these actions is a belief that the media should report what the government wants them to and the people should trust and follow everything it says. All this even as the government keeps giving limited information.

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It is still not too late. The government needs to revise its media and communications strategy around the COVID-19 crisis to build an atmosphere of trust, social cohesion and purpose — where the media and people are participants. It needs to be transparent, open about its limitations and accept criticism. If the government wants to control the crisis, it needs to stop controlling the media or patronising the public.

Chapal Mehra is a writer based in Delhi

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