As vaccination opens up, design a smarter communication plan

Updated on Apr 21, 2021 06:46 AM IST

As we enter the general public vaccination drive, citizens will hopefully be more convinced of the need to take the jab. But instead of only leaving it to them, it is important to craft communication that combines motivation, relevant information and appropriate messaging

Representational image. (REUTERS)
Representational image. (REUTERS)
ByKalyani Rajan and Shilpa Rao

In public health, communication is often equated with sharing of information. If there is anything we have learnt over the past year, it is that information alone does not result in lasting behaviour change. This is particularly true in an environment burdened with information overload, blurring lines between fact, fiction and opinion. That is where strategic communication becomes vital to help shape behaviour. Information is cold, but communication can make it warm, personal and thereby more effective.

As we enter the general public vaccination drive, in the middle of an unprecedented wave of infections, citizens will hopefully be more convinced of the need to take the jab. But instead of only leaving it to them, it is important to craft communication that combines motivation, relevant information and appropriate messaging.

In February, The Indian Covid-19 Alliance (TICA), anchored by IDFC Institute, partnered with a market research consultancy Convergent View to understand issues surrounding vaccine hesitancy and eagerness. Our qualitative study showed that reversing the disruption in people’s economic stability, social life, and way of living is the most critical motivator to opt for the vaccine — more than safeguarding oneself from health risks.

During the early period of the pandemic, when it was critical to adjust to a different way of living, communication was instructional, overloaded with information, and directing (one might even say ordering) the public on desired health behaviour to prevent the spread of the virus. This mechanism is not likely to work now.

First, Covid-19 is not just a public health problem. The study’s respondents expressed concerns about a diverse range of issues – from children become addicted to mobile devices, to financial devastation. Any form of communication must consider this social and human aspect. Mainstream messages in the earlier phases of the pandemic focused on the actions we expected from the public but failed to pay attention to the stimulus most likely to trigger that action. Until we unearth those reasons, and listen to our audiences, we cannot expect behaviour to change.

Second, the launch of the vaccination program in mid-January brought with it volumes of misinformation, disinformation, and every other kind of information resulting in an infodemic. Our study confirmed that too much erratic information is leading to vaccine hesitancy. Those who were reluctant feared severe side-effects both in the long and short term; believed in the vaccine being curative and not preventative; saw vaccines as not meant for healthy people; suspected vaccine tampering by health care workers; perceived it as a money-making exercise; preferred ayurveda to allopathic interventions; and claimed Covid-19 was being blown out of proportion. Other reports from our partners, frontline workers and NGOs suggest misinformation around more implausible side-effects of vaccination, including an inability to conceive, impotence, and an inability to consume alcohol or non-vegetarian food. The second wave may have changed incentives and dispelled some of this, but it is useful to know the nature of misperceptions out there.

Third, there is both fatigue and lack of awareness of the importance of Covid-appropriate behaviour (both pre and post vaccination). Any future communication campaigns, therefore, need to emphasise the value of the Covid-19 vaccine not just from the lens of prevention of serious disease and fatality but by stating with conviction this it is currently the best and only known path to restoration of normalcy in our lives. Here lies the answer for “why should I” and the most compelling motivation for anyone to opt for the vaccine.

India has a rich history of having successfully eradicated insurmountable diseases through public vaccination campaigns. It is the country’s responsibility to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease and treat infected patients. But it is an individual’s responsibility to manage their lives and families and do their bit. If each and every one of us has a strong enough personal motivation, we are more likely to do our bit by opting for the vaccine as and when offered.

Kalyani Rajan is Visiting Senior Fellow and Shilpa Rao is Head, Stage Engagements, IDFC Institute. This article is part of TICA project

The views expressed are personal

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