Photo: Kate Holt/ Jhpiego. Rosa, who has nine children, meets with Veronique, the Traditional Birth Attendant for her village in Nampula, Mozambique.

This new strain of coronavirus, known as Covid-19, is here to stay. Around the world, Covid-19 will continue to spread amongst the world’s population for many months to come. This will most likely continue until a natural immunity is developed or a protective vaccine is produced. Covid-19 does not discriminate, people at all levels of society bus drivers to doctors and prime ministers to princes are being affected. This is a global pandemic and requires a pandemic response, which means an unprecedented quantity and complexity of communications from both governments and NGOs.

Charities developing communications in some of the world’s least developed countries need to be thinking carefully, creatively, and collaboratively about the content of this communication. They need to go beyond sharing hand washing techniques and extend their reach to ensure that every community is targeted with a tailored communications strategy that is going to support them from both a physical and mental health perspective.

Supporting communities without access to adequate hygiene and healthcare facilities

A vital first step in any communications strategy around Covid-19 is to develop a wide range of public health information — explaining the virus from the bottom up. This communication needs to start by explaining the virus and why it is unique, advice on who people can contact locally for healthcare needs, details on public handwashing stations and alternative solutions to soap and hand sanitiser if these are in short supply.

Photo: Kate Holt/MedAir. Children wash their hands at a handwashing station supported by MedAir in Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Developing and sharing innovative ways people can practice limiting the spread of Covid-19 is key. Yes, this means social distancing, but it needs to go beyond this. How can communities be supported in aspects of their everyday life to ensure social distancing can realistically be achieved? What can we do to help people understand what social distancing is and how it works?

Promoting and supporting a drive towards achieving or maintaining good physical health should also be considered. Social distancing is important, but how do we ensure we continue to promote exercise and healthy eating? Communications need to aim to encourage these things too. Education around which foods are scientifically proven to boost the immune system, and are locally available, is one way where your communications can go beyond traditional discourse to support people’s overall physical health.

SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), an NGO in Kenya, are a great example of how charities can adapt their communications strategy to reach the most vulnerable in society. Powered by volunteers and some modest investment, SHOFCO have set up handwashing stations at every entry point into the Kibera slum and are running door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness, distribute bleach, homemade soap and hand sanitiser, while combating rumours and misinformation.

From Kibera, from communities like mine, I hope the world learns that we are capable of keeping ourselves safe, clean, and protected. Community-led efforts must be allowed to start and to lead the way.” Kennedy Odede, CEO and founder of SHOFCO.

Ensuring the marginalised in society don’t go unsupported

Photo: Kate Holt/ UNICEF. Bendu, a 2-year-old girl, holds her mother’s hand while waiting to receive treatment in Sierra Leone.

A one-size-fits-all approach to comms will most likely fail to get everyone on-side. An effective communications strategy should be sensitive to individual communities and cultures. This means developing comms to support marginalised people — so coming up with innovative ways to communicate to those who may not be able to read, who may not have access to the internet or those who are visually impaired.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that “[t]o effectively combat the outbreak means ensuring everyone has access to treatment, and is not denied health care because they cannot pay for it or because of stigma.

In many countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people face discrimination in accessing health care every day. Human Rights Watch has documented health care discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in many countries. This discrimination can affect access to HIV testing and treatment as well as care for other chronic diseases that can make LGBT people, particularly at risk of suffering severe illness or death as a result of COVID-19. In Mozambique, for example, 1 in 3 people are HIV positive. Developing an informative, yet sensitive, communications strategy to support communities such as this is vital.

All governments have an obligation to ensure that a serious public health crisis does not also become a human rights crisis because people are unable to access adequate medical care. Governments need to take steps to ensure everyone has affordable and accessible medical care and treatment options.

Communications also need to go beyond only physical health and have a focus on mental health too

Photo: Kate Holt/ Medair. A youth group gives a performance on how to protect yourself from Ebola at an Ebola sensitisation meeting in a Church Hall in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Public health strategies such as social isolation and ‘lockdown’ can be effective in combating the spread of Covid-19; however, they can also have serious knock-on-effects for people’s mental health. If these issues go unaddressed, then we could find ourselves emerging from the Covid-19 crisis and into a new one.

With lockdown comes economic shutdown and in many developing countries, this will also mean loss of work and, therefore, income. This can quickly become a difficult and stressful situation for many people, and once combined with social isolation, it can have a severe impact on people’s mental health.

How do we ensure communities remain connected?

Community meetings are essential at both educating and bringing communities together. Community meetings were used in both West Africa and the Congo during the Ebola outbreak by many NGO’s, to both help people stay connected and involved, but also to help them understand the risks and what to do if someone they knew contracted the disease. The challenge with the current Covid-19 crisis is that it is more contagious than Ebola, making the community meetings that worked in combating Ebola, much harder to organise.

Photo: Kate Holt/MedAir. Community members attend an Ebola sensitisation meeting in a Church Hall in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Technology has proven to be an effective way to provide an outlet or support for communities and help people to feel less isolated. Your communications can work to alert people to the existence of online forums to connect and interact, be it a WhatsApp group, social media chat room, or community video call.

However, many people will not have access to this level of technology, and it is essential strategies are created to help people think more creatively about how they can connect whilst remaining safe. Whether it is offering a freephone talk line, or encouraging people to sing and play instruments together. Encouraging people to connect with each other, while remaining safe, is an important step in supporting positive mental health.

Photo: Kate Holt/ Medair. Philimon Paluku, a Health Promoter with the Swiss NGO Medair, demonstrates how to use a handwashing station supported by MedAir in the Democratic Republic of Congo

“Community engagement and awareness is essential — once communities understand the risks they can start to understand how to stop the spread — the worst thing that can be done is isolating communities so they have no engagement with others — as this breeds fear and suspicion. We need to overcome fear and suspicion to overcome Covid-19”. Kate Holt, director of Arete, who has covered Ebola in both West Africa and Congo

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Adjusting how you communicate to meet the needs of all communities during Covid-19 was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.