This how the Chief of UNDRR’s Regional Office for Asia
and the Pacific, Loretta Hieber Girardet, described the
importance of risk communication in regional and national
responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Countries that have succeeded in curbing or preventing
the spread of COVID-19 have all used risk communication
in their online and offline messaging to help people
protect themselves from infection.
At the same time, a deluge of social media rumours
and conspiracy theories have spurred the creation
of a parallel “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation.
Enhancing risk communication and countering misinformation
in the COVID-19 crisis was the theme of UNDRR’s 30 April
webinar which drew over 880 participants from 81 countries.
One of the countries featured in the webinar was the
Republic of Korea which has been held up as a model
in the COVID-19 response. The country has pioneered
the use of digital technology to reach vast segments
of the public. Key to this success has been the
government’s decision not to centrally control the
COVID-19 messages, but rather giving local authorities
the flexibility to communicate as they see fit:
“They can send a message to their residents without
having to receive approval from the central government.
They are able to make their own decisions and to fast
track the process,” said Dae-Joong Lee, Director
of Development Finance in the Korean Ministry of Economy and Finance.
In Mongolia, which shares a large border with China,
the government was quick to institute measures to
prevent the spread of COVID-19 as early as in January.
One of the measures was to close the schools and move
to distance education through public television and online classes.
The government used this arrangement to introduce
COVID-19 educational videos staring children to harness
the enthusiasm of the children to reach their parents
“Families, caretakers, and children were all engaged
in this process,” said Sayanaa Lkhagvasuren,
Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Prime
Minister of Mongolia, noting that “the cutest videos
would be shared on social media ensuring wide dissemination.”
While an asset to communicators, social media has
also become a source of concern for health officials
as misinformation has spread across the region.
“Misinformation is a public health issue and it
unless you address it firmly, it is as much of
an issue as the actual epidemic,” said Supriya
Bezbaruah, who is a Risk Communication Officer
with WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia.
As part of its response, WHO is monitoring social
media to identify misinformation and counter it with facts.
This includes misinformation about behaviours that
supposedly protect from COVID-19, such as smoking,
and rumours about sources of the pandemic.
“There was a big rumour in India and Nepal that
eating chicken causes COVID-19 and it went viral,
which had a huge impact on the poultry industry,” said Dr Bezbaruah.
That said, the panelists agreed that there is no
quick or easy method for countering the “infodemic”.
“Risk communication is a process, not a product.
That is because people are complex, their lives are
complex, and so risk communication should reflect that,” said
Gemma Hayman, who is the Cambodia country director
for BBC Media Action, which is currently working
in seven Asian countries to counter misinformation
and disinformation about COVID-19.
The BBC’s work involves directly debunking myths
and stigma, and “more importantly, supporting
audiences to think critically about how they are
consuming and sharing information,” according to Ms Hayman.
Capturing this simple but important point,
their campaign challenges people to think about
the content they are about to share by asking them
to pose the questions: “is it true? is it kind? is it helpful?”
Understanding the target audience is equally
important to reaching and influencing them.
“Content needs to be grounded in local realities,
people need to be able to relate to it.
They need to be able to see people like them.
They need to be able to understand it,” said Ms Hayman.
This is point was echoed by Raijeli Nicole,
Oxfam International’s Regional Director for
the Pacific, who is based in Fiji:
“At the end of this, you want ordinary people
to take action and you want them to take responsibility.”
In the case of the Pacific, with its multiple vulnerabilities
and challenges, this means messaging on COVID-19 must
adapt to the local context.
Ms Nicole gave the example of calling on people to wash
their hands, which may seem like a simple message
on the surface, but would cause confusion in a country
like the Solomon Islands, where many people lack running
water and have to make a conscious decision about
the type of water to use for daily tasks.
However, no amount of clever or contextualized messaging
would work if there is no trust between the messenger and the audience.
“Trust is a currency and social capital that we must
invest in,” said Ms Nicole.
Beyond trust, even making simple changes in how we
describe prevention measures can help counter stigma.
WHO’s Dr Bezbaruah recommends replacing the term “social
distancing” with “physical distancing” and “social connectedness”.
These terms underscore the need to respect prevention
measures but also highlight the importance of maintaining
close social links throughout the COVID response.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Asia and Pacific,
Provided by the IKCEST Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Service System