By Chibuike Alagboso and Patience Adejo (Lead Writers)
“I don’t believe there’s COVID-19.”
“I can’t be infected by COVID-19 because I’m young and have a strong immune system.”
“I follow the safety guidelines by NCDC such as wearing of face masks and frequent hand washing with soap and water because I believe they will protect me.”
These are some of the responses you might get when engaging with Nigerians about the COVID-19. Some Nigerians think it’s a hoax while some believe they cannot be infected because of different reasons as shown in this survey by EpiAFRIC and NOI Polls.
These perceptions can significantly impact how people respond to advisories aimed at improving public health and social measures (PHSM) to fight the virus. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), these measures are actions by individuals, institutions, communities, local and national governments, and international bodies, to suppress or stop the community spread of COVID-19.
PHSMs are critical to reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and risk communications is vital in making sure that citizens understand and adhere to guidelines that improve PHSMs.
To further discussions on this, Nigeria Health Watch’s third #PreventEpidemicsNaija webinar held on June 26, 2020 focused on “Promoting Behavioral Change that improves Public Health and Social Measures (PHSM) through Risk Communications.” Webinar speakers highlighted the need to effectively communicate the importance of PHSM, how risk communications can help achieve this and the central role of journalists in shaping narratives about public health actions and outcomes.
Dr. Nandita Murukutla, Vice President of Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies, a global health institution working to solve financial health crises, was a panelist. She shared findings from Nigeria-specific PHSM data collected by the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC) between March 29-April 17, 2020. PERC is a public-private partnership that supports evidence-based measures to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on African Union member states. The situation analysis of effective implementation of PHSMs in Nigeria gathered information on COVID-19, risk perception, support for government and PHSMs, and barriers to adherence showed that while 85% of respondents in Nigeria reported that COVID-19 will be a problem for the country, only 41% said they believe that they are at high risk of being infected.
Dr Murukutla said the findings highlight PHSMs as important strategies to slow community transmission of COVID-19 and the problem it creates for fragile health systems. Therefore, to make PHSMs more effective will require public understanding, support and adherence. In addition, she said getting results from PHSMs will require understanding the unique information needs of communities and tailoring information targeted at them to reflect these differences. She said optimal response can be achieved if information from the community is used for tailoring response for risk communication and community engagement. These targeted messages can then be amplified by the media, network of community and religious leaders who are critical to risk communication during public health emergencies.
Dr Inya Ode, a veterinary surgeon and on-air personality, moderated the webinar. She shared personal experiences engaging Nigerians on radio and how she is leveraging radio to dispel misconceptions while encouraging meaningful discourse.
Panelist Mrs Moji Makanjuola buttressed the role of journalists and media organisations during disease outbreaks to help inform and educate the public. She shared her experience as Chief Executive Officer of the International Society of Media in Public Health (ISMPH) and the organisation’s efforts to train journalists and equip them with skills to deliver on their roles. She highlighted the media’s integral role in containing the pandemic and delivering a 21st century health sector that works for all Nigerians. She reiterated that journalists and media organisations must see their work as a social responsibility and execute it with every sense of responsibility by not politicising issues but rather sharing facts. This way, they can help increase public confidence and adherence to PHSMs which will help contain the spread of the virus.
Bringing the government perspective on PHSMs, Dr Chinwe Ochu, the Acting Director Prevention, Programmes, and Knowledge Management at Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), discussed the barriers and solutions to adopting PHSM in Nigeria. Dr Ochu shared how the four ‘Cs’ of risk communication (content, context, communicator and channel) inform their strategies at the NCDC and how these have evolved over time to involve a bottom-top approach.
This approach requires a lot of listening to build trust as Nigeria’s socio-cultural diversity drives the behaviors of people and how they adhere to public health guidelines and other social measures to curtail spread of COVID-19.
Trusted channels such as community influencers and volunteers can help disseminate risk communication messages to people in their communities because they can relate more with the influencers than government agencies. Dr Ochu also encouraged personal experience sharing such as the #MyCOVID19NaijaStory series initiated by Nigeria Health Watch on Twitter where survivors, healthcare workers and other individuals at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response are sharing their personal stories.
Webinar participants engaged with the speakers in an enriching conversation around effective community engagement, response efforts, misinformation, content relevance and the place of context in sharing public health and social media guidelines.
At the end of the webinar, it was clear that while the race to find a pharmaceutical intervention to treat COVID-19 continues, public health and social measures are the only ways to protect the public and prevent COVID-19 from spreading further.
But for this to happen, risk communications must be proactive and evidence-driven. It also must be based on a strong foundation of trust with an opportunity to get feedback from communities receiving the information. All these require investment to get desired outcomes and should be sustained beyond COVID-19. Effectively funding public health institutions saddled with this responsibility will not only ensure that people have information to keep them safe during pandemics but help them prevent further pandemics from happening.
As Dr Ode rightly put it, “It rests on all of us to take responsibility to keep every one of us safe.”
What is the most effective risk communications messaging you have heard around COVID-19? Share with us on Twitter @nighealthwatch, and on Facebook and Instagram @nigeriahealthwatch.