Communicating in times of Covid

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Frederick Noronha

So many loudspeaker-fitted cars went around our villages and towns, taking with them messages for staying safe during the Covid pandemic. They told us about the risk posed by the growing number of cases, how risky it was to step out of our homes, how crowded our hospitals are, why masks are important, etc. This message went in through one ear, and out of the other, as the local idiom puts it.  Not much of an impact.

Then, one short video came through. It was only 18 seconds long, and was apparently the message played by a vehicle sent out by the Calangute panchayat. It got widely noticed. This message did the rounds so many times in cyberspace, so much so that WhatsApp was allowing only one forward to be made of it at a time.

What did it say? The briefest of brief messages, obviously taped by some bystander, showed the vehicle playing a song that had some “strong language” in it.  A few Bs and Ds (or, should one say, Fs and Ds). These lyrics berating those not staying home during the pandemic are believed to have been written by Chris Franklin, who uses some blunt if not abusive language, to make his point. All-knowing Google says it was written after the London lockdown in March 2020.

In a short while, an apology came through. It read: “I, …., owner and driver of the advertising vehicle, would like to apologize for the blunder caused by me regarding the viral video being circulated all over Goa. The song was sent to me on WhatsApp by a friend and I did not realize it was abusive. I deeply regret what happened and apologize for being so irresponsible.”

Should he have apologised? This could also be taken as a powerful and impactful, if controversial, use of Effective Communication. (Effective Communication has been defined as “the process of delivering messages to a target audience in a way that guarantees satisfactory reception and understanding”.)

You can see it whichever way you wish. But incidents like this do raise questions about what is the best way of communicating during the pandemic. So many initiatives came up, some good and others not-so-convincing. WhatsApp groups both helped and hindered the attempts to organise against the virus.  Some communication was based on alarm and panic, only making a bad situation worse. But then there were some good ones too.

CovidCareGoa.in is one of the early and comprehensive sites offering information on a whole lot of aspects. This site, run by Shruti Chaturvedi of Chaipani.com and team, was created speedily. It is packed with information which about care centres, test and scan centres, oxygen suppliers, pharmacies, plasma help, ambulances, vaccination centres, cooked food, emergency requirements, sanitation services, quarantine services, tele-consultations, care-takers, shops for essentials, oximeters, and active cases.  There are even links to memorial services and pet-sitters!

Of course, such information gets outdated pretty fast, but the site is updated by a team of many volunteers. It is done in a simple way, but efficiently. It cautions anyone who comes its way to seek information, saying: “We are a volunteer group not a service provider, medical advisor or certifying body and any payments pertaining to these resources may be evaluated by those availing them.”

 Covidcaregoa.in sees itself as “a team of volunteers and ordinary citizens, unaided monetarily and not represented or representing any organisation, public or private.” They thought of pooling their “time and skill sets” to help others in Goa in crisis. This team also opted to offer access to verified Covid-19 information that was available in the public domain. This, as they put it, would help to avoid a waste of time in emergencies.

Their work is voluntary. More importantly, it shows the efficiency of crowd-sourcing – where many cooperate to work for a common cause. They first came together on April 19, and released their informative website barely a week later. Hats off to the team, who are quite happy to do the work without the fanfare of publicity or praise amidst a social media setting where self-glorification can sometimes be a motive.

A number of young doctors also rose to the occasion. They started effectively reaching out to the general public with information and tips on how to battle the lethal virus. They all shared a common trend: they were young, efficient and articulate.

Those who one noticed (and there could be others) included the following.

Dr Poonam Sambhaji, through her VLog on Facebook (and other platforms), kept up with so many answers on diverse aspects of Covid, and how to cope with it. GMC Goa-based doctor Ella-Marie Filinto Sequeira came out with a series of six short, interesting tips on the Covid-19 second wave. She explained why there was the reason for concern and extreme care this time, far more than during what we saw in 2020 too.

Another doctor had this elaborate, long interview which covered almost everything (or so it seemed) a layman might want to know about Covid. It was comprehensive, at least, going by what our current knowledge tells us. Check out Dr Swapnil’s Health ARC via Facebook. One particularly interesting discussion dealt with “33 burning Questions related to Covid”.

Alisha Fernandes, another young medico, offered practical advice out of Chandor (I think), in a mix of English and Xaxti-dialect Konkani. The latter would surely make it more accessible to those living in a rather densely populated area of Goa.

So many small digital artworks, offering useful Covid-19 information, started floating around. These came up via WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and the other networks in cyberspace. Indeed, this too has its role to play at times like these.

Even the Don Bosco Youth Services offered a lot of links through their modest effort of a Google doc, which was regularly updated with a whole lot of information.

This time around, like in 2020 March-April, the situation in tiny Goa also got the attention it deserved from the rest of the country, and even beyond that. The oxygen issue in Goa, and its possible contribution to deaths, caught the attention far and wide this time, and those connected with Goa, far and wide, started noticing the severity. This happened much like the stringency of the Goa lockdown, and consequent disruption of food supplies was reported on widely in March-April 2020.

But the galling part is that the situation in a tiny place like Goa gets noticed and appreciated when CNN, an NDTV, or an India Today channel highlights the same. The lesson here seems to be that we really need to take reports emerging from the ground more seriously, even when these emerge locally.

Overall, the crisis has pointed to new ways of communication that might work during a crisis. Lessons to take note of.