Coronavirus (COVID-19) and crisis communication: Lessons for the future

COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in the existing public health communication systems even in the most powerful and advanced countries of the world and highlighted the urgent need to restructure and reform

The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is all set to change the way we live. It will change the way people travel across borders, the way healthcare systems work worldwide, and the way the international community will tackle such global public health disasters in the future. Most importantly, COVID-19 is expected to transform the existing public health communication systems worldwide; especially the current Crisis Communication mechanism through which States connect with their citizens during such public health exigencies.

COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in the existing public health communication systems even in the most powerful and advanced countries of the world and highlighted the urgent need to restructure and reform them to meet global public health disaster incidents in the future. At the larger level, the pandemic is expected to restructure and reform the whole world of Crisis Communication itself.

As nations struggle to cope with the devastating impact of this pandemic, the growing spectre of Coronavirus has highlighted the significance of Crisis Communication during such a global public health disaster worldwide. In this age of globalization, the fact that countries like the United States, Italy and Iran failed to employ emergency measures and effectively alert and communicate to their citizens the dangers posed by the alarming spread of COVID-19 in China, raises fundamental questions about the efficacy of crisis communication systems that are functional there.

In contrast, India chose to learn from the failures of these countries and employed a Crisis Communication protocol nation-wide, suspending tourist visa for more than a month starting from 13th March and announced a 21-day nation-wide lockdown, including the closure of all passenger trains and domestic and international passenger flights. Ministry of Home Affairs invoked the National Disaster Management Act to issue orders to all the Ministries and Departments of Government of India, State/Union Territory Governments and Authorities to take what it called “effective measures for ensuring social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led India’s battle against Coronavirus, personally communicating and educating people through an address to the nation about the rationale behind imposing a nation-wide lockdown and the urgent need to enforce the principle of social distancing to contain and prevent the spread of the disease. It is perhaps the first time in many decades that an Indian Prime Minister has chosen to address the nation twice within a span of six days on the same issue. Though such drastic measures have brought the economy to a standstill, forcing tens of thousands of poor and underprivileged to migrate out of India’s important urban centres in what is being seen as a ‘forced’ reverse migration process to survive the lockdown. 

It is the most serious public health emergency in recent Indian history and media has actively supported the emergency measures announced by the Government, strengthening the Crisis Communication measures initiated in every part of India. During the three-week lockdown, TV news channels, newspapers, web portals, radio networks and social media platforms have emerged as the central nodal points to disseminate important information about the threat posed by Coronavirus pandemic among the masses. Importantly, the ongoing national effort to combat COVID-19 has highlighted the growing significance of Crisis Communication during a public health disaster.

The media coverage of COVID-19 has been largely mature and responsible too, as not a single patient of Coronavirus undergoing treatment has been shown on TV to prevent their ostracization in the society. Their privacy has been respected and identities have not disclosed until they have been completely cured. A protocol for interviewing the victims of Coronavirus is being strictly followed. Reporters have also strictly adhered to a framework of reporting, which is focused largely on encouraging and educating common people about the dos and don’ts during this public health emergency. The Government has initiated public communication processes to address the fundamental concerns and fear every Indian has in the present context: Will I be infected with COVID-19? What would happen to me and my family if I get infected? What would happen to my job? In the last few days, the Government has tried to address these concerns through effective communication measures aimed at assuaging the concerns of an average Indian.

Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is all set to change the way we live

Covering an epidemic is potentially very hazardous. To address this challenge, tenets of Disaster Journalism have been on display, too. Journalists have followed a special protocol for reporting: they have maintained the required distance from the subjects they have covered, and are using boom mikes wherever needed; they have been given all the protective gear required for their self-protection while at work; and they have been kept out of the isolation wards where patients are being treated. A large section of media personnel is working from home, with only specialized reporters covering the Health Ministry, hospitals and the police. Emergency services have been deployed in the field with all the requisite security precautions. They seem to be working within the parameters of the risk assessment plan.

As the global community grapples with one of the biggest public health disasters in the human history, it has made it imperative for governments and media organizations worldwide to strengthen Crisis Communication measures to fight COVID-19 like pandemics in the future. Section 36 (d) of ‘The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-30’ specifically outlines this objective when it calls upon the “Media to take an active and inclusive role at the local, national, regional and global levels in contributing to the raising of public awareness and understanding and disseminate accurate and non-sensitive disaster risk, hazard and disaster information…adopt specific disaster risk reduction communications policies…and stimulate a culture of prevention and strong community involvement in sustained public education campaigns.”

Himanshu Shekhar is currently working as Editor (Government Affairs) at New Delhi Television (NDTV India)

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