As the Covid-19 cases keep increasing, people across the world are desperate for a solution. While many vaccine trials are ongoing, should we treat the vaccine as a silver bullet, an exclusive solution to the pandemic? Perhaps not. Developing vaccines takes time. Historically, the world’s fastest vaccine to be developed – for mumps – took five years. A vaccine receives regulatory approvals after rigorous tests for efficacy and patient safety. And then, there is the challenge of inoculating billions of people in diverse countries.
The little that we know about what curbs the spread of the virus forms the basis of Covid-19 safety advisories: Wearing masks, social distancing, and handwashing give us a reasonable degree of protection. Yet, as soaring case numbers indicate, there is a gap between the mass communication of Covid-19 prevention information and its uptake.
We, in India, can perhaps find lessons in how we faced another challenge not so long ago. Accounting for 60% of global cases, India was once the world’s polio epicentre. We had the vaccine; however, what was lacking was mass understanding of the need to immunise children well in time. Such was the distrust among many people that in many cases, vaccinators were regularly turned away. In the face of this resistance, India’s polio vaccine campaign at the time leveraged opinion leaders and deployed a mass communication outreach to support behaviour change. The campaign’s compelling appeal gave frontline health workers the social licence to go door-to-door to ensure coverage. The campaign won the trust of communities at the grassroots level, making the two polio drops for infants socially acceptable.
While India was familiar with vaccines (for smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and TB, among others) early on, the polio campaign was a unique one. Along with ending polio, the campaign provided the proof that vaccinations work; and, the collective journey to a polio-free India built a trust of vaccines among citizens. This month, a special Covid-19 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which covered 3,400 respondents from seven countries (India, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, and Singapore), found that at 83%, India has the highest receptivity rate for a government-approved, no-cost vaccine among the countries surveyed. In comparison, only 65% of all respondents in the seven countries surveyed were willing to take such a vaccine.
India’s successful polio communication, exemplified by the vaccination efforts, can give us some learnings we can apply now. Considering that Covid-19 outbreaks take place at the community level, fighting the disease will also need concerted local action. According to Dr David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy for Covid-19, prioritising three universal essentials can help keep people safe: Wearing masks, hand hygiene and physical distancing. From rural hubs to urban wards, we require a mass campaign to communicate these fundamentals to every citizen through constant reiteration.
The prevention campaign needs to engage large audiences. Places of congregation, like markets, offices, public transport, slums, and residential areas, must be specially targeted. Just as non-compliance with road safety rules leads to traffic fines and more, there must also be strict emphasis on compliance for the Covid-19 safety protocols.
The campaign against the virus must also fight misinformation, a major risk amid an ‘infodemic’ of Covid-related content. As the economy reopens, it is imperative that there is sustained dissemination of Covid-19 prevention messages using every channel of mass communication, from posters, billboards and wall-writings to radio, TV, and social media. In addition to the three essentials, communication also needs to provide clarity on how the virus spreads. The vaccine will come in due course. Until then, stringent caution, robust communication of Covid-19 safety protocols, and compliance to trusted actions are the vaccine.
Rakesh Thukral is Managing Director, Edelman India
The views expressed are personal
First appeared in the Hindustan Times