A number of very important guidelines have been issued worldwide to address the COVID-19 pandemic, namely:
- frequently wash hands under running water with soap for at least twenty seconds
- sanitize hands periodically
- limit the number of face-to-face interactions
- observe basic social distancing protocols, etc.
These guidelines are being widely repeated here in Ghana and in various social media by political leaders, religious and community leaders, captains of industry, celebrities, etc We should, however, not be lulled into a false sense of security by the mere repetition of, and seeming familiarity, with the guidelines. Much more is needed for their intended impact to be achieved. After all, we are aware of people practicing behaviours that are contrary to information they are aware of, either because of traditional beliefs, sheer habit or just a penchant for practicing risky behaviours.
The ability to apply the guidelines requires knowledge and effective engagement with, and application of, the knowledge. It is important that critical information is effectively disseminated through channels that reach the whole population. The circumstances also demand that people look out for, and access, and own the information that is coming from the authorities.
The language of communication of the guidelines is very important. It is obvious that many Ghanaians are more comfortable in their own local language and must be reached through our various local languages. In that regard, accuracy in translation is critical to ensuring the right behaviours being adopted.
Translating alcohol-based sanitizers as “Akpeteshi” (local hard liquor), obviously distorts the message and rather projects wrong behaviors simply because of poor translation! Washing hands with liquor is obviously not the message, nor is drinking alcohol of any value in respect of COVID-19!! This is why some distillers in the UK, as they change production lines to produce sanitizers, have also made it clear that their normal alcoholic products are not to be used as sanitizers.
The struggle to express the use of sanitizers in local Ghanaian languages depicts the reality of introducing a behavior that was not generally practiced previously and which requires more care in communication.
Using modern hand washing basins with soap from a modern dispenser to demonstrate hand washing may seem distant to some people and will need to be adapted to the circumstances of different sections of the society. As people understand the rationale for the practice, appreciate the benefits, have access to the required logistics and social support, they are more likely to accept and also adopt and practice the new behaviours and even integrate them into their way of life.
Considerable attention needs to be paid to how the circumstances in which people live affect their ability or disposition to practice these guidelines. The general guidelines, therefore, need to be translated into the ways of life of different sections of the population.
The whole society needs to be mobilized to ensure the practice of the required behaviours. At every level of society, we need ownership for change; it is not because “they say it’s good for me” or “the authorities demand that we practice the new behaviours”, but because, the new behaviours are “good for me”.
Different players each need to play their respective roles. For instance, after the message about hand washing has been put out nationally, it needs to be drilled down to regional, district, right down to community and family levels.
Putting out the guidelines without an explanation of the relationship between the behaviours set out and the intended outcomes will not likely lead to their observance. There may, indeed, be some who just go through the motions of the behaviours without really appreciating their import and, thereby, ensuring that the intended outcomes are realized.
The general information repeated through the guidelines is, undoubtedly, good but this situation calls for more than information dissemination. It requires a deliberate behaviour change messaging approach that includes advocacy with leadership at all levels and in all contexts of the society to be custodians of the behaviours and associated practices set out in the guidelines. The leaders will be expected to mobilize their respective communities and groups to institutionalise the behaviours as a community culture. Sub groups within the whole society must influence and encourage each other to practice the behaviours that are required to combat COVID-19.
This way the whole society is mobilized in a sustainable manner - even beyond the crisis -to practice these behaviours. The individual should see benefit in the new behaviours for their own survival and well- being so as to embrace and practice them.
What COVID-19 calls for is communication that makes the nation, and the world at large, adopt behaviours that protect us and give us a chance to overcome the grave danger posed to us all by the pandemic. We must not only be “hearers” but, more importantly, “doers” of the guidelines if we are to avert the dangers that stare us in the face. That is why I would like to add the following to the important messages being put out:
Stay Informed, understand the information, act on the information and Stay Safe
Esther A.N. Cobbah
Chief Executive Officer
Strategic Communications Africa (Stratcomm Africa) Ltd.