Five days ago (on 14 April 2020), the World Health Organisation released a new, comprehensive document titled COVID-19: Strategy Update “to help guide the public health response to COVID-19 at national and sub-national levels”. The document was based on “…the evidence the world has accumulated in the past three months about how COVID-19 spreads, the severity of the disease, how to treat it, and how to stop it.” One of the six mandatory conditions, that WHO identified, if any government wants to start lifting restrictions, is that “Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal”.
I have been away from Nagaland (my birthplace and residence) for education and work for all my adult life. When news came of the COVID-19 precautionary lockdown in Nagaland, I learned there was no reliable single source of information available. What worried me more was that, any information which I could find on the Nagaland government website/s was in the English language only. This led me to petition to the Government of Nagaland (GON) on April 5, 2020, that “mass communication is a critical weapon against COVID-19”.
To be clear, I speak mainly for my constituency of the voiceless common people in the far-flung remote areas of Nagaland, and for those people who are not English-literate or cannot read.
My petition letter provided two major suggestions:
1. Produce a scripted audio communication translated into all major and minor languages and dialects in the State. The translated script would include all the vital and approved information for the general public on how to protect themselves, and those around them, from getting infected and also from spreading COVID-19. That the GON recruits volunteers (from each language/dialect group) through an official call for those that have demonstrable proficiency in English, for translation to local languages.
The GON has just launched https://covid19.nagaland.gov.in/, but it is currently a dashboard for basic COVID-19 statistics.
There is an appreciable amount of vital information for public awareness about COVID-19, but effective communication from the GON still seems to be lacking thus far. I wish to highlight the following major issues that I think can be addressed through improving and expanding the GON COVID-19 dedicated website:
Issue 1: Which department?
COVID-19 is a health issue which is why at the national level all official communications and guidelines including awareness materials related to COVID-19 are made available on the official website of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW: https://www.mohfw.gov.in/). Quite logically, one would think that at the State level, the mandated department for all COVID-19 awareness materials will be the DHFW (https://nagahealth.nagaland.gov.in/) under the concerned central government ministry, the MoHFW. When I was searching for Nagaland information, the last place I thought to look for “health” information was on Nagaland State Disaster Management Authority which primarily provides the GON COVID-19 related information (https://nsdma.nagaland.gov.in/covid19). The DHFW website on the other hand appears to only have a link to social media (Facebook and Instagram: https://nagahealth.nagaland.gov.in/) for the awareness materials, and does not direct the citizens to the NSDMA website.
As this is a health issue, generally a person wanting to find any information on COVID-19 will go to the website of Nagaland’s DHFW. The GON must inform the public which department is in charge of all public awareness on COVID-19. Other departments that might be searched should not contain any additional information, but should only provide a link to a single platform (COVID-19 website).
Issue 2. Duplication of Effort:
Several GON-sponsored COVID-19 awareness materials (texts, graphics, audios, videos) are available. The All India Radio, Kohima (Air Kohima”) has made audios in multiple languages on several topics (health advisory for elderly, dos & don’ts to prevent coronavirus, physical distancing, etc.). The North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA) in partnership with DHFW, and several other institutions have made awareness videos (how coronavirus spreads, hand washing guidelines, etc.). I can only assume that the Health Communications Department of the DHFW will have made or are making several such awareness materials.
Collaboration between all key departments and institutions will avoid duplication of effort and do justice to all of the awareness materials that are being produced if the GON officially directs the public through the single platform (COVID-19 website). Nagaland should be proud of the commendable efforts that have been made by the Government, independent parties, and individuals in spreading awareness about COVID-19, but the most efficient way for mass education would be to present these materials on the single dedicated COVID-19 website.
Issue 3. Information/education for all:
Mass education of citizens who speak disparate tongues is Nagaland’s real and unique challenge. Many developed nations that would not ordinarily have language as a hurdle to disseminate clear guidelines about COVID-19, are still suffering a huge loss of lives to COVID-19. It is a frightening prospect to imagine what will happen to Nagaland if/when community infection starts. The provision of vital information to ALL sections must be a State’s government’s primary and official obligation.
In Nagaland, the clear COVID-19 related guidelines must be made available in as many languages as possible, including languages of tribes that are not formally recognised in Nagaland.
This can be achieved, quite effortlessly and cheaply in my opinion, through the official call for volunteers for translation as suggested in my petition. A single script should be made for each of the several critical topics related to COVID-19 (e.g., at-risk groups, symptoms, and causes, etc.), the script after approval by the GON will be translated by volunteers. This information should be updated periodically as we learn more about this virus. Hence, it would be done more efficiently when a single script is used as the template that is to be translated.
Issue 4. Needle in a haystack:
The common people do not need the large majority of the official legislative notifications and regulations that are being issued to the respective departments. Any person wanting to search the Internet for GON-approved COVID-19 awareness materials and important updates in the state will likely Google the keywords “Nagaland COVID-19”. However, so far, Internet searches for the keywords “Nagaland COVID-19” yield only the disparate news items. This is a significant deterrent to effective mass dissemination.
The GON has launched an official COVID-19 website; the website should be optimized to pop up as one of the top Google hits.
Issue 5. From the horse’s mouth:
The public outcries on several critical issues related to COVID-19 (to cite one example, COVID-19 hospital in Dimapur) is putting huge stress on the GON. This harms the public faith in the GON, distracts the government officials and the public from focussing on real issues, and is also very damaging for the citizens’ individual and collective mental health.
Regular ‘official public addresses’ detailing the signs of progress being made on several fronts, as is being done even at the state level elsewhere in northeast India (e.g., Sikkim) is critically needed. Currently, Nagaland citizens are learning of certain critical updates and progress being made by the GON from news media, whereas other updates are being provided through social media (for example tweets by public leaders).
The problem is that there is no single platform and this is causing widespread confusion and anxiety.
I suggest that the Nagaland Health Minister make regular public addresses and post these videos on the official GON COVID-19 website. No information regarding COVID-19 should be spread on social media by government officials that are not referred to on the GON COVID-19 website. If the GON officials must use social media, it should only be to direct the public to official updates on the GON website.
The Sikkim Government, long ago, realised the importance of effective mass communication, and quite immediately put in place a COVID-19 website (https://www.covid19sikkim.org/) with a simple layout which is easily navigable for the general public. The website provides exhaustive resources on any topic related to COVID-19. The Sikkimese website may be considered as an excellent template for consideration by the GON for further development of its COVID-19 website.
A recent research paper titled ‘The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-2019) Outbreak: Amplification of Public Health Consequences by Media Exposure’ was published on March 23, 2020, by researchers from the University of California, U.S.A., in Journal of Health Psychology. They drew from work on previous public health crises (e.g., disease outbreaks) and demonstrated that in the absence of information or lack of effective communication from officials, ambiguity can lead to the potentially severe public (mental) health repercussions, increased anxiety, and heightened stress.
During the brief lockdown, Nagaland has already seen many crimes, petty and serious. As a firm believer in the power of knowledge and community awareness, I believe that many of the crimes resulting from paranoia, confusion, and misinformation could have been prevented. It would be fair to assume that if our community is “fully educated, engaged and empowered”, as WHO has recently recommended, the anxiety, the rumors, the unrest can all be drastically minimised.
Despite the extensive efforts of the international scientific community, and promising (but very preliminary) news about advances in vaccine development, in reality, a publically available vaccine is still at least 18 months away based on current estimates. There is no universally accepted anti-viral treatment available to treat patients with confirmed COVID-19 because scientific investigations to manage or treat COVID-19 patients is still only at an experimental stage. The evidence of clinical efficacy is still lacking. Like it or not COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
How long, realistically, can the whole of Nagaland, remain in a lockdown when many of the remote areas’ only lifeline consists of only a single dirt road?
I request the Government of Nagaland, especially the recently set up multi-department “COVID-19 War Room”, to please consider “arming” the citizens firstly with knowledge through effective mass communication through the COVID-19 website. What we all must understand very clearly is that we are not actually at “war”. SARS-COV2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is not an “enemy” because a virus is not even technically alive, and so does not even have the “consciousness” to “attack” us, let alone know that we exist. It is simply a new disease that we do not currently know how to treat. So, the first line of defence, in such an unconventional “war” where the use of force and physical ammunition is not an option, must be knowledge. Nagaland will not be able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic without its populace understanding of how to protect themselves from this indiscriminate threat. Like it or not, a global pandemic such as COVID-19 is reaching even the remotest regions of the world. Efficient coordination and management from the GON can and will provide the necessary information for the public to protect themselves from the devastation seen elsewhere in the world
Rachunliu G Kamei, PhD, is a Herpetologist; former European Commission-funded Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at The Natural History Museum, London (2014–16), UK; former Assistant Professor, St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi (2005–10, 2013); PhD (completed 2014) from University of Delhi, India.
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