How can awareness campaigns reach our most vulnerable communities?
Selling the concept of social distancing to the urban Bangladeshi is difficult, to say the least -- this is not simply based on the citizens’ reluctance to stay home, but rather the financial inability of most to do so. But for rural Bangladeshi citizens, not working indefinitely and without explicit support from the state is a literal matter of life and death.
The absence of adequate social safety mechanisms and the prevalence of unsustainable industrial markets means that the collective socio-economic effects of Covid-19 on the middle class, marginalized, and daily labourers is not simply concerning, but a disaster waiting to happen -- now multiply this tenfold, and we can perhaps begin to assess the aggregate consequences facing rural Bangladesh in the coming days.
The global consensus is that this crisis, both from health and economic perspectives, will sustain and prolong if social distancing is not a national norm -- the state and the private sector have an obligation to ensure social distancing measures across the country, and do so by mobilizing an appropriate awareness campaign and a simultaneous emergency stimulus plan for the next few months, via which people truly understand the need for quarantining.
Awareness campaigns explaining the causes, symptoms, and effects of Covid-19 are being carried out across social media -- the concept of social distancing is, as such, wedged within this elite echo chamber. A majority of the population does not have access to the internet or use social media.
The efforts of privileged citizens and to a large extent, the state, are being misdirected -- social media, with all its benefits and recent enhancements in Bangladesh, cannot be the primary mechanism of raising awareness, and neither should it be the principal tool to encourage and ensure social distancing measures. A majority of Bangladeshis reside in rural Bangladesh -- this majority has significantly lower access to internet connections, and consists of a minority of social media users.
The 17 facilities permitted and equipped to perform Covid-19 tests are based in Dhaka, with a few new facilities being given the green signal in Khulna, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Sylhet, and Cox’s Bazaar. Testing, treatment, and limited resources, including PPEs, are being directed towards city centres -- leaving rural parts of the country vulnerable. This is to be expected, given how our health system is structured. The nationwide Covid-19 awareness campaign must be unrelentingly targeted towards rural communities and should acquiesce traditional methods of outreach, rather than the exclusive emphasis on digital mediums.
The PM’s role
Whether we like it or not, Bangladesh continues to embody a hierarchical system which respects authority. Perhaps this is the very reason why law enforcement agencies, including the military, have been tasked with ensuring social distancing measures. But the reality is that it is simply impossible to force over 160 million people to stay home. Social distancing can only work if it is done by individual choice -- it is here where the head of the government can play an important role.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the most influential and powerful individual in the country -- it is time that she uses her position to navigate the direction of the country. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides a daily Covid-19 response and advisory briefing to the public, based on directives given by health experts -- a similar form of public engagement by the Bangladeshi prime minister will carry greater traction than any cabinet member or local health expert.
To put it simply -- the prime minister should commit to come in front of the media on a day-to-day basis, including state media platforms such as BTV and Bangladesh Betar, both of which are accessible across rural Bangladesh, and inform the public about daily developments.
She should remind the public of the threat posed by Covid-19, encourage them to practise social distancing, and comfort them by providing updates to her 31-point plan. More than any social media blast or infographic, to have the head of the government speak to her people directly in a moment of national crisis is not only important, but the prime minister’s mandated duty.
The dissemination of accurate and truthful news is fundamental in this regard -- to avoid panic, it seems the government has taken an approach of telling the public that all is well, without actually defining the reality. First and foremost, the notion that this is a “public holiday” needs to be eliminated -- this is a national emergency, and a catastrophe waiting to happen, and such must be made clear if the latter is to be avoided.
Yes, the number of Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh is low when compared to the rest of the world -- but we are forgetting that this is a result of a lack of testing facilities.
Misdirection will only yield negative results in the form of the public either taking Covid-19 advisories lightly or refraining from practicing social distancing. Therefore, in order to get a response from the public, the government needs to be at the forefront of disseminating accurate information and generating awareness regarding social distancing -- something we have failed to see, as of now.
Traditional outreach mechanisms
WHO’s statistics and advisories are being shared across social media platforms and elite media -- but this message needs to be presented in Bangla, using language which the average rural Bangladeshi citizen will understand.
The transmission of this information can be done through culturally-relevant outreach methods -- using mics in mosques following the Azaan to broadcast the importance of social distancing, or mobilizing village community leaders to spread awareness will create a greater sense of trust within community members, whilst organically creating the scope for self-quarantining.
The suspension of congregational prayers such as Jummah also needs to take place -- the Ministry of Religious Affairs has the option of endorsing the Fatwa of Senior Scholars at Al-Azhar University, which allows the suspension of congregational prayers in times of national emergencies.
For a Muslim-majority nation such as Bangladesh, this will be a massive signal of the severity of the crisis, and encourage people to quarantine.
The average community leader on a rickshaw using a hand mic to raise awareness regarding Covid-19 is a more feasible and practical method of awareness generation than using social media -- if the messaging from the top of the government is in sync with the messaging at the root level, only then can we as a society succeed in implementing social distancing measures.
Prioritizing the needs of rural Bangladeshis is the next step of the national communications strategy needed in raising nationwide awareness regarding Covid-19.
We should not be blaming rural citizens for partaking in religious congregations or accumulating in masses if we are failing to provide them an accurate picture of the crisis in a language and medium they can understand and relate to.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Graduate of Economics and International Relations.