The Covid-19 pandemic has seemed like a long-haul for everyone, especially with the appalling news that over fifty thousand deaths have now been reported in the UK, putting us near the top of an ignominious international league table. David Nabarro and John Atkinson, writing in The Observer, argue that we need to approach the Covid-19 public health crisis in a very different way than we have been, if we want to avoid the pain and suffering that has characterised the UK response so far. Nabarro and Atkinson ask, “how can we avoid another rise in cases when the current lockdowns end? And how can further lockdowns be avoided next year?”
With the welcome news that a vaccine will soon be available, we have a chance to reset our thinking. If the promised vaccines can be distributed in sufficient numbers to the whole population of the UK, what, Nabarro and Atkinson ask, do we need to do in the meantime to ensure that infections from the pandemic are seen to be falling again?
As they point out, “assuming the positive news about vaccine development is sustained” we still need to keep on top of the spread of the virus by ensuring that those most at risk are protected until the vaccine is made widely available in 2021. They note, however, that “it will be some months before vaccination programmes will slow the spread of infection,” so public health measures must remain in place for some time to come.
Just because there is the promise of a vaccine, we should be under no illusion that there is any going back to normal yet. In the meantime, and as with all nations around the world, we need to be sure that we have “better-functioning and resilient localised Covid-19 response systems.” Systems, as Nabarro and Atkinson point out, that can be put in place now with the aim of reducing the need for any further period of restrictions in 2021.
Two immediate factors jump out from Nabarro and Atkinson’s recommendations. Firstly, they identify the need to “earn people’s trust through honesty, authenticity and consistency.” This trust, they suggest, must come from a whole series of unambiguous messages that must be delivered to everyone in meaningful languages, and by implication, across all meaningful platforms. This would ensure that “everyone appreciates the need for all-round compliance and understands what has to be done and when.” As Nabarro and Atkinson state, by respecting people we gain their trust.
Secondly, any further restrictions and the roll-out of a vaccine must be done on the basis that “communities are supported through nationwide networks,” and not just left to fend for themselves. As Nabarro and Atkinson point out, the “ability of societies to keep Covid-19 at bay depends on the quality of connections between people, the extent to which they are supported and local capacity.”
As part of an integrated local public health response, the challenges of reducing Covid-19 infection rates will only be successful if we follow clear and well-established public health principles. This means empowering people to act with a high-level of local determination, as defined by the health needs that local public authorities can act on, and not have to wait for central government to impose or manage a trickle-down process from a national, systems-wide approach.
The failings we have seen in the Covid-19 response here in the UK have been attributed, in part, to an overly centralised approach, informed by a narrow behaviourist view of the needs and requirements of different people acting in only a narrow range of communities. The reality is that people live complicated and divergent lives, yet central government communications interventions have felt like top-down edicts that demonstrate little understanding of local needs, diverse cultures, diverse economies and circumstances.
Nabarro and Atkinson call, as a consequence, for a connecting of all the elements of public health to ensure that the system works in practice, not just in theory. It is easy to design a public information campaign from a planning meeting in the offices of consultants and information systems designers. The reality, however, is often very different when it hits the pavement of a local neighbourhood.
The alternative approach to localised community-led public health must therefore bring people together and ensure that communications have a deep commitment to community-based support. This means harnessing, not only the professional capability of local public health managers, but also those that are at hand and embedded in the teams that do the responding on the ground.
In effect this means comms professionals working closely with their incident teams, and being empowered to widen their engagement with trusted community voices. Particularly voices outside the standard, narrow and well mapped professional communications networks. Community communications should not be thought of as a separate entity, but must be seen and validated as part of an integrated network of local community communication respondents and providers.
This approach would recognise community-focused communication as one of the keys to the pandemic response that is different from what has been practices previously, and clearly is not working. Community communication, when recognised and empowered as part of a process of mutual support, co-finance, social gain, social impact and civic accountability, in my experience, will have many clear benefits over national, centralised and commercial models of communication.
As Nabarro and Atkinson point out, in order for the pandemic public health system to respond and function effectively “all of its parts must be connected.” This means establishing “good and trusting relationships” between people acting and operating at different levels, and across the spectrum of social networks. Communications at the grassroots level is now as important to the Covid-19 response as that produced at the top level, if not more so.
As Nabarro and Atkinson remind us, “Covid-19 will exploit any gaps or weaknesses in the system.” The question that is raised, therefore, is to what extent is community media able to operate as a functional player across widely different platforms and modes of engagement? Can community media play its part in providing solutions? If community media can play a positive role, then where is the central support and coordination coming from that recognises what community media groups are able to achieve? Where is the recognition coming from for the projects and activists who have an essential role to play in ensuring that valuable information and trust is built-up in our communities ahead of the roll-out of the vaccine?
There is a massive risk that ongoing community responses to the pandemic are left to find their own way, and that there is no coordination or support for trust-building media that can be held accountable by communities in ways that are relevant to their local needs. An essential criteria and definition of community media is that any projects or content that is created and shared isn’t simply done on an individual basis, but that it is part of an accountability circle. A loop in which trust is established in each group’s setting, and in which experiences are shared for the public good and not for individual gain.
Community media platforms have been largely ignored during the pandemic here in the UK. There are excellent examples of individual endeavour, but there is little common goal setting, and no supporting infrastructure that brings activists and producers together to verify, discuss and share their content.
There are pockets of self-defined community media interaction, but these don’t have the widespread support and recognition that needs to be in place in order to meet Nabarro and Atkinson’s principles of a successful public health response. Too many community media groups and activists are simply trying to survive day-to-day, pulling in different directions, and making the best of the limited circumstances that they have found themselves in.
We urgently need conversations to take place between public health managers and policy directors with community-focussed media practitioners, with the aim of working out how we can get ahead of the community communications and information process, and get it ready for when the vaccine is available. Otherwise, we run the risk that the conspiracy theorists will dominate the discussion, and accountable community media practitioners will be side-lined.