As India grapples with COVID-19, a widely prevalent belief is that the crisis is purely driven by the disease.
However, the truth is that confused, and often disempowering communication, has contributed equally to our present predicament.
India has no crisis communication strategy was evident from the government’s request to the Supreme Court to curb the media from publishing or broadcasting news on the pandemic, without checking facts with them.
This is a time when the government needs to be forthcoming and transparent in its communications. It should also use the media as an ally to broadcast its messages and, at the same time, take steps to pull down fake, misleading and alarmist news.
The more information the government gives, the less speculation and rumours will circulate. The government has done the exact opposite.
It has not created even a single central repository of public information and communication that speaks credibly, directly and continuously to people.
Media engagement strategy
The government should also have begun a media engagement strategy, along with a multilingual, information campaign on every aspect of the crisis.
The response should have been communicated in painstaking detail to the implementers, the media and the public.
During times of crisis, the government has to over-communicate. It, however, chose to under-communicate. It results in stigma, fear and poor health-seeking behaviour, and increases vulnerability. It also causes lopsided reporting, theorising and fake news.
Already, certain communities have become the object of blame. If India continues with this approach, all it will be left with is an atmosphere which makes everyone look out for themselves.
For a young media-centric country gripped by crisis, this strategy is all wrong. Underlying these actions is a belief that the media should report what the government wants them to and the people should trust and follow everything it says.
The government needs to revise its media and communications strategy around the COVID-19 crisis to build an atmosphere of trust, social cohesion and purpose — where the media and people are participants.
It needs to be transparent, open about its limitations and accept criticism. If the government wants to control the crisis, it needs to stop controlling the media or patronising the public.