Experts harp on risk communication to improve public health

By Chioma Obinna

Coronavirus disease has continued to spread like wildfire in Nigeria. Sadly, the response to the spread of the virus in Nigeria has been greeted with misinformation, fears, and doubts.

This has however generated so many myths about the disease despite the number of confirmed cases, which has continued to skyrocket on a daily basis.

No thanks to the eroded public confidence in government officials and the absence of effective risk communication in the response effort

With a total of 23,298 confirmed cases and 554 deaths as of June 26, 2020, in Nigeria, every state has recorded a case of COVID-19, although one or two states have continued to give false security to their citizens.  Findings show that no state was free from the virus.

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Today, while some Nigerians believe COVID-19 is a hoax, some who agreed that the disease exists have refused to get treatment from the isolation centres.

For instance, in Lagos State alone, according to the state Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, over 2,381 patients are not in the isolation centres, either due to wrong information or preference for self-care at home.

For Africa’s most populous country, widespread myths, disbelief, and politicisation of the pandemic have led to the flouting of guidelines set by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Need for  community  empowerment

With a population of over 200 million with many having no access to radio, television or the Internet, experts say risk communication and community engagement are essential to ensure that Nigerians living in communities with limited access to the various channels of information are empowered with appropriate messages to prevent risk to individuals, communities, and families.

Confirming the challenges posed by wrong messages on COVID-19 response during a webinar tagged: “Promoting Behavioural Change That Improves Public Health and Social Measures through Risk Communication,” organised by the Nigerian Health Watch, the Acting Director of Prevention, Programmes and Knowledge Management, NCDC, Dr. Chinwe Ochu identified a lot of conspiracy theories that came up due to lack of trust in government as one of the biggest challenges the agency has encountered in its efforts to communicate with Nigerians.

Ochu said some Nigerian finding it difficult to believe in the evidence provided by the agency but see them as a conspiracy.” “When we are giving evidence, people do not see the evidence; people see governments talking and link it to their past experience with the various governments.

Conspiracy theories

“We are transparent in the evidence we provided to the people, but they are now interpreting our transparency as a conspiracy.

“A lot of conspiracy theories started coming up and this is a big challenge.”

Speaking on other challenges, which she captured under the “Four Cs of risk communication”, she said the states’ level of autonomy also posed a challenge to the enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines.

“Initially when we started communicating our messages to the people, we adopted the top-bottom approach.  We developed our messages and we let the states adapt them to their contexts.

But we had to move away from that to the bottom-up approach by engaging the communities to develop their risk messages and we have discovered that this is more impactful.”

Stating that NCDC does not enforce guidelines, Ochu explained: “When we come out as a national agency and we say people should do this and not do that, the states still have some level of autonomy that makes it difficult for us to enforce whatever it is.”

On how difficult it was for NCDC to handle the politics associated with COVID-19 response, she said: “We live in a society where almost everything is politicised and we have come to see health being politicised and we had to handle this politics regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She, however, encouraged more COVID-19 survivors to come out and tell their stories as such will boost risk communication in the communities.

Antidote for misinformation

Vice President, Global Policy and Research, Policy, Advocacy, Communication Division, Vital Strategies, Dr, Nandita Murukutla noted that evidence-driven response was crucial to the COVID-19 crisis given the implications on a large number of people.

She further stated that in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions, public engagement through risk communication was required in COVID-19 response in communities.

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Encouraging the Nigerian media practitioners and the public health experts to promote behavioural change through risk communication, she noted that misinformation plays a key role in epidemics and can deter effective responses.

“Misinformation can lead to stigma and in addressing misinformation there is a need to repeat facts but ensure that misinformation is not repeated.

Honest communication is the antidote to misinformation. In the contest of this pandemic, we need people to understand the appropriate risk and necessary action to reduce risk to oneself as well as to one’s communities.”

She stressed the need for public health responses to be tailored to meet people wherever they are

She warned that politicisation and political framing of the issues is unhelpful. There is a need for a united response for the COVID-19 fight. Mass media has the role of amplifying the messages as they have the ability to reach many people during a crisis.

The media is the optimal tool for getting the messages out.”  Other speakers at the webinar include veteran health journalist and Executive Director, International Society of Media and Public Health, Mrs. Moji Makanjuola, while the session was moderated by another trained journalist, Inya Ode.


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