OPINION: Focus on behaviour, messaging and social networks to stem COVID-19

By Izel Kipruto

As the government moves with speed to contain, mitigate and suppress the spread of the global Covid-19 pandemic, an imperative struggle is different perspectives of seeing the current virus outbreak and what it takes to stem the upheaval.

On the one hand, it is a virus that requires medical science to combat it. On the other hand, it is an adaptive challenge that needs change of human behavior and norms. It is worth understanding that Covid-19 is both a biological and social phenomenon and defeating it requires bed, medical staff, equipment, ambulances, social networks, messaging and norms.

Since early March, the number of cases in our country has increased day by day. In other countries, the numbers have grown exponentially, overwhelming the health-care system and threatening the economy.

Despite calls from various factions to stay at home to protect self, loved ones and health workers, some have refused to understand how Covid-19 is virulent and lethal. Unfortunately, some people are bucking calls to action- still living in old norms and behaviors (physical contact, holding parties, dissuading quarantine) that is helping the virus to spread.

To beat Covid-19 and other social problems, all people from all walks of life globally ought to change their behaviors. This requires a mind shift. Evidently, the virus thrives in human behavior — shaking hands, gatherings, close face to face meetings as well as sneezing without covering oneself. It will call for change of such behaviors for the Covid-19 to stop.

More portentous is how we communicate with the public to encourage and sustain behavior change. Messaging on Covid-19 should be consistent and repeated for effect. It is vital for the public to know that ‘Covid-19 must go and defeating it is everyone’s business.’

Messages should appeal to the hearts and values of people — not just the head. Currently, the message out there is ‘stay at home to reduce transmission.’ The problem with this message is that it only appeals to the head — and heads are good at reinforcing negative actions such as panic buying. It is important to reframe such messages and focus on the value that is ‘stay home to protect yourself, loved ones, parents, grandparents and health workers.’

Changing norms and behaviors demands that we mobilize mass of actors to participate in changing minds. There is power in social networks. The unemployed youth can be facilitated to form an army of social mobilisers and influencers who can be trained to move from household to household to speak directly to people (of course at a distance) about the contagion and preventive measures.

The same youth can rally others on social media to practice social distancing and isolation. To connect more, we need to get survivors of Covid-19 on radio and television and other media channels to share their experiences.

The public has been up-to-date with information on Covid-19, courtesy of the press briefings by the national leaders. However, it is time we diversify the mediums of communication. A trusted messenger matters. To change behavior, we need to allow the local leaders as spokespersons who people listen to.

Local leaders are significant to drive message home as they understand existing norms, beliefs, cultural practices and people’s concerns at grassroots levels. Changing behaviors such as social distancing is problematic and slow and requires mobilizing people who the public trust and listen to.

Undeniably, it takes an effort to convince the public to make informed decisions to protect themselves and those of loved ones from such pandemic. It is great time we pay more attention to social and behavioral aspects, social networks and messaging. Let’s stay at home to protect ourselves, loved ones, parents, grandparents and health workers.

Ms. Izel Kipruto is a communications and advocacy officer at PAL Network. ikipruto@palnetwork.org


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