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Covid-19: Lack of community engagement could lead to disaster

  • Published at 09:13 pm March 31st, 2020
coronavirus test
File Photo: Test tube with Corona virus name label is seen in this illustration taken on January 29, 2020 Reuters

Public mistrust of health authorities a barrier to effective action, experts say

One of the most dangerous aspects of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus which causes Covid-19, is that it is extremely contagious. The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly asked nations to ensure community engagement to limit spread of the virus.

However, people are extremely resistant to enacting the kind of behavioural changes needed to stop a virus from spreading like wildfire. Experts say this resistance stems from a lack of understanding of the scale of the crisis, mistrust of health authorities, and an overall lack of knowledge about the virus itself.

Recent protests against the use of Regent Hospital at Uttara for the treatment of Covid-19 patients and the construction of an emergency hospital in the Tejgaon industrial area are some examples of public resistance and the lack of community engagement in Bangladesh. Furthermore, youths and locals are wandering outdoors, despite the 10-day general holiday called to enforce social distancing measures, as recently as two days ago.

Many people who live in Dhaka returned to their villages as soon as the “holiday” was called, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the reason for the “holiday.” 

At a press briefing on Monday, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) Director Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora, said the relatively low number of cases detected in Bangladesh does not mean that people are safe. 

People need to continue social distancing measures and stay indoors, if possible, she added.

Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) Director (Planning) Dr Iqbal Kabir, also head of the community engagement sub-group of the integrated control room,  said: “With utter surprise, we have seen that people are not following our advice. We fear we may not get the support needed from the community to stop Covid-19 from spreading.”  

He also criticized the media for failing to effectively disseminate information about the viral infection. 

“They [the media] are strong sources of public knowledge. They must address the problems within different sectors, but should also provide information about what is Covid-19, how people can be infected, and what should be done,” Dr Iqbal added.

Public health expert Dr Rashid-E-Mahbub said people are not cooperating and complying as they are not truly aware of the threat Covid-19 poses.

The WHO has instructed administrations worldwide to proactively communicate and promote a two-way dialogue with communities, the public and other stakeholders, in order to understand risk perceptions, behaviours and existing barriers, knowledge gaps, and to provide identified communities with accurate information tailored to their situations.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Associate Professor Helal Uddin Ahmed said one of the main reasons for the lack of community engagement is that the masses do not trust the information provided by health authorities.

He also said the people delivering the messages to the public do not have the confidence required to convince them, as scientists and doctors are still in the process of learning about the novel coronavirus.

The spread of rumours on coronavirus is also making the situation worse, according to the associate professor.

“People are tense. They fear both being infected and losing their jobs, which is leading them to panic and believe in rumours. A few people are accepting the correct information, while the majority are getting information that is distorted,” Dr Helal Uddin said.

Information on Covid-19 must be publicized, along with evidence, in order to gain the public’s trust, he added.

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