Communication as a strategy, concept, and process has undergone a paradigm shift with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, there has been a constant strategic shift in the Communications Framework adoptedglobally and across nations. As a consequence, the communications architecture has witnessed a 360 degree change, as has the understanding of the communication process under the new nomenclature of ‘new normal.’

The reiteration of the centrality of communication through communication tools, specific strategies, and new templates of outreach has been critical during this time. Every country has had a unique experience in designing their approach to communication. India has led bold innovations in its communication approach, despite challenges emerging at every stage of implementation. COVID-19 gave India the opportunity to showcase to the worldhow communication can be designed and delivered withpeople’s participation through ‘Jan Andolan’. India has outlined a strategy keeping in mind the five critical Rs of communication –

  • Reconfigure
  • Rethink
  • Redesign
  • Rediscover
  • Reimagine

This has led to new approaches for capacity development, awareness generation, and behavior change programs. The communication ecosystem has remained dynamic even with the core framework staying intact. Changes have been made for practitioners to reimagine communication interventions strategically. Under the new normal, innovation has been the key to balancing the right mix of content, message, and outreach to stakeholders. This has been the hallmark of India’s communication journey in tackling COVID-19 in the last one year. The government’s communicationsframework has effectively balanced the key pillars of engagement and dissemination. Every level of engagement has explored newer approaches to time-tested tools, methods and forms of community engagement.

The critical aspect of this communication journey has been the use of several creative innovative tools for outreach. Jan Andolan i.e. people’s participation as been the key mantra. The COVID-19 communication protocol has been extremely successful in outlining the concept of intensive people’s participation along with focused messaging andlow cost campaigns. With the participation from stakeholders and the community, India has effectively shown the concept of ‘Jan Bhagidari’ to fight the misinformation ledinfodemic,during the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A critical lesson learnt during the implementation of the new communication strategyhas been the consumption of content by both media vehicles and stakeholders. Challenges emerged in view of high intensity social media consumption leading to crisis situations such as fake news and the emergence of an ‘infodemic’.

The Government-ledcommunication during COVID-19 was undertaken in the following phases:

  • Initial Phase – Lockdown
  • Middle Phase – Gradual Unlock and resumption of economic activity
  • Post Unlock Phase
  • Vaccine rollout Phase

Every phase has involved a defined approach to encourage COVID appropriate behaviour. Social distancing, tackling disinformation, supporting frontlineworkers and preventing panic are some. Communication aimed at solutions through authentic information by different media vehicles of the government, positioning behavior change through targeted campaigns, choosing the right messengers, and defining the tools of engagement for awareness generation are important. A critical element of the entire exercise has been that the gradual lifting of the lockdown restrictions did not imply the end of the pandemic.

Health seeking behavior has been encouraged by embracing technology and addressing socio-psychological aspects of public health. In the behavior change framework, enough emphasis has also been on the observance of public space protocols and access to relief through economic packages. One of the unique aspects of the entire communication exercise has been audience specific dissemination, last mile communication in regional languages and a coordinated social media campaign.

The COVID-19 communication experience also brought to the fore COVID-19 related communication fatigue. The Jan Andolan launched by the Hon’ble Prime Minister on 8thOctober, 2020 through a tweet #Unite2FightCorona has created a template of ‘Low Cost High Intensity’ campaign with people’s participation. It also provided lessons for established communication principles i.e. sustained campaign with a unified message, uncertain times requiring innovative solutions, public-private collaboration for synergistic effortsm and a positive narrative built through mass influencers, experts and celebrities.

The task ahead  is outlining a communication process and model to ensure the success of the COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy. The effort has been to ensure trust and confidence by employing correct and authentic information and managing any misinformation and disinformation. Under the communication protocol, the two critical elements have been addressing the issue of eagerness and hesitancy as far as the vaccine outreach is concerned. All efforts have been undertaken to balance the twin elements of eagerness and hesitancy through communication up to the last mile. The focus has been on low cost, people intensive vaccination communication campaign involving multiple stakeholders and an effective social media outreach. Dissemination in regional languages has been the core strength of India’s success as far as the COVID-19 communication platform is concerned. India has effectively shown the world that last mile communication can be established and promoted effectively through new communication templates involving capacity development, awareness generation and behavior change programs. The idea of people’s participation has been well tested at different levels but is being reiterated once again to ensure that there is no complacency. The tagline ‘Dawaibhi, kadaibhi’ holds true for a diverse country like India where the challenges of communication in public health remain intense.

Mr. Chaitanya Prasad,
Civil Servant, Government of India

Views expressed by the author are personal.