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Analysis | Communication, public health and social justice

The pandemic has shown that communication is a double-edged sword. It is one of the most powerful tools to change behavior: it can create awareness and compassion in relation to the situation of vulnerable groups, who are most affected during crises, and combined with a strong equity agenda and credible leadership, it can drive action positive and inclusive. But misused (distorted by prejudice, short-term vision, and selfishness) communication can be a dangerous weapon.

A comparison between the responses to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom and in Rwanda illustrates this dichotomy. In the first country short a determined, quick and coherent response from the political leadership, and at first the population was less permeable to the messages of the health authorities. Communication errors had a lot to do with this.

The Government began to put obstacles early, by greatly underestimate the number of deaths from covid-19. The leadership continued to provide conflicting information and examples, causing confusion about the recommendations and further undermining confidence in the authorities. According to a recent survey, public confidence in the British Government has not yet recovered from the events of May, when it emerged that Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had flagrantly breached the rules of confinement.

British leadership did not understand the disproportionate impact of the virus on black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. This led to them not receiving medical services and information adapted to their needs to protect themselves.

Rwanda’s communication strategy, by contrast, can be described as coherent, credible, inclusive, and timely. A month before the first confirmed case of covid-19, the government was already publishing periodic and scientifically based reports on the progress in testing and the degree of national preparedness. In order for essential information to reach the entire population, the transmission of messages in digital form, by SMS, on local radio stations and even with drone help; and this was complemented at the community and family level with the work of community health workers.

In addition, Rwanda adopted a participatory decision-making strategy that included those responsible for implementing the response and those most affected by the crisis, to understand their inherent needs. The Rwandan government created a national helpline and self-assessment tool to help the population know how to respond to possible symptoms, and distributed means (food, financial aid and medical care) so that vulnerable communities could comply with the confinement orders.

Rwanda created a national helpline and a self-assessment tool so that the population knew how to respond to possible symptoms of covid-19

All these measures reinforced confidence in the Government, and in particular, motivated and empowered people so that they could protect themselves and their communities. The results are eloquent. As of August 13, the United Kingdom, with 67 million inhabitants, has registered more than 315,500 cases of covid-19 and 46,791 deaths. Rwanda, with 13 million, had 2,189 cases and just eight deaths. Although this disparity can be due to many factors, it is almost undoubted that the fact that people wanted and were able to follow health recommendations has influenced (something that is partly an effect of official communication and the trust it generated).

The presence of deficient, contradictory and incorrect information from different sources (including the media, friends and colleagues) can create divisions and deepen them; even more so when it comes from the government (and especially from its highest levels).

A good example is the United States. During the pandemic, President Donald Trump has not stopped making questionable and dangerous claims. In March, for example, public that hydroxychloroquine could be the solution for covid-19, despite the lack of scientific research to corroborate it. Drug sales they shot up, and the resulting shortage has hurt those who need it for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Then, during a press conference at the White House in April, he ventured that the internal use of household disinfectants could be an effective treatment against covid-19. The sale of bleach quickly grew (and the number of calls to poison treatment centers). Statements of this kind put lives at risk, but there is a lack of accountability mechanisms that limit the dissemination of dangerous or misleading information.

To some extent this is changing. After years of criticism, social media companies begin to assume certain responsibility for the information that is disseminated on their platforms. The first major platform to step in was Twitter, which labeled several of Trump’s tweets as disinformation. Even Facebook (whose CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been a vehement opponent verifying the veracity of political discourse) had to take action in response to pressure (which included a advertiser boycott). He recently deleted from Trump’s official account the publication of an interview fragment where he was seen saying that children are “almost totally immune” to covid-19.

But social media platforms cannot be solely responsible for protecting people from misinformation. The media also need to be bastions of credible information. In this, personal or professional responsibility may not suffice. In Rwanda, all officials are prohibited from giving dangerous recommendations to the population. It should be like this everywhere: that the leaders who make these recommendations and the media that amplify them are accountable to the courts.

But it is not only about the transmission of messages with direct risk to people’s lives, for example inaccurate medical information; there are also those who reinforce prejudices that contribute to social injustice.

For example, many have rightly criticized the British media for publishing articles or videos that praise the work of health personnel in the face of the crisis, where they only appear white people, despite the fact that 44% of workers of the UK National Health Service are members of minorities. In many countries, the media have published conspiracy theories about the pandemic centered in China, damaging Chinese (and Asian) communities around the world.

The way that authority figures (eg, the media and political leaders) communicate with people can save or risk lives, and can combat or reinforce injustice. Rwanda and a few other countries (including New Zealand) have shown that the most powerful tool we have in the fight against COVID-19 is innovative, inclusive and science-based communication.

Translation: Esteban Flamini. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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