By FanMan Tsang, Director of Common Services; Capacity Bridging and Technology, CDAC Network
The speed and breadth of the global COVID-19 pandemic quickly overwhelmed the health planning and communication capacity in many countries including in Europe and North America. Across the world, what were considered to be robust health systems were found to be lacking in many key areas of planning which often missed members of society were hastily enacted without consultation. In some places health information was further confused when political priorities took precedent, or a lack of coordination between competing regional and national government leaders created conflicting policies which were not detected until people started complaining which further eroded trust in the systems.
Many of these issues could have been tackled by governments having better information about the communities they serve, so they could have early warning of impending problems. However, these problems occurred despite many of the most affected western countries already having extremely sophisticated tools to gather and share information were available to decision-makers. These systems, often used during elections, have teams of researchers and algorithmic processes to allow the state, if it chooses, to be involved in every kind of social interaction and media communication.
When it comes to community engagement and communication though, sophistication in technique does not mean comprehensiveness in reach – or that it is even trusted if it is not used properly. And if technology is not used in a coordinated way, it can cause confusion leading to misinformation and mistrust. If it is used too broadly and without focus it could easily miss data concerning the vulnerable and those already overlooked by society. As a case in point, at the start of the UK lockdown, homeless people were absent from consideration until a chance intervention by a homeless expert, who happened to be in the office of the Prime Minister when the lockdown was instigated, ensured they were. While the technical skills are available, grave mistakes are still being made. Clearly, lessons need to be drawn so that these essential community engagement resources can be properly utilised going forward.
Yet, if all this sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it is. These are the communication and community engagement structures and systems that the humanitarian sector has been working to identify and overcome for the past couple of decades: honed and defined in regions of conflict and crisis in initiatives often spearheaded by governments of the very countries that have performed so poorly at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the problems outlined above have already been addressed by those working to deliver aid and offer development assistance. Indeed, if we can reframe the conversation about the global COVID-19 pandemic as a global humanitarian health crisis, then those tools and techniques are exactly what nations in the West currently struggling to contain the crisis may need.
So, what are these tools and what’s so special about them? Fundamentally, they realign the direction of accountability in a crisis response. Rather than being solely responsive to government and donors, they instead look to the most vulnerable person in the crisis and asked the question: What needs to be done if the whole response was answerable to them?
Over the last 12 years, and funded by those countries now struggling to contain the pandemic have created a set of industry standards and best practice benchmarks to make sure that humanitarian work answers to those in greatest need. This includes making them involved and invested how the response actions are planned and implemented. To build trust it involves taking effort to understand the communication networks communities already trust. Within this, there are built-in mechanisms that ensure voices from every part of society are heard, and that their influence makes a meaningful change to the way authorities behave so that their needs, as perceived by themselves, are included. Those commonly overlooked in aggregated data sets have dedicated channels and teams working to ensure their inclusion. Organisations, like the CDAC Network, that spearhead advocacy around the implementation of this best practice, have developed ways to do this rapidly and effectively even in distressed environments.
For many countries who were in the midst of a humanitarian relief operation, these mechanisms rapidly swung into place during the onset of the COVID-19 crisis; often it was already being used to deal with outbreaks of disease such as Ebola, refugee relief operations or malnutrition and reconstruction work.
For this level of engagement to happen a consistent and early application of outreach is needed so that communities are clearly understood in all their diversity. Ideally it should be pre-prepared; certain types of disaster can be predicted – we know when hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are likely to appear, which countries sit on fault lines. We are also, thanks to 2020, acutely aware that pandemics are a reality.
This new research paper, Improving The Response To Covid-19: Lessons From The Humanitarian Sector Around Communication, Community Engagement And Participation, outlines the breakdown in the COVID-19 response, and how planning and preparation in many nations, including those in the West, fell short. It suggests that by applying humanitarian standards and principles in community engagement, many of the most acute deficiencies in the response can be avoided.
>> Register for the CDAC webinar, "The Rest and the West: How Western governments can get back in touch with their own citizens in the COVID-19 response by applying the same humanitarian principles they require others to adopt" taking place on Thursday 03 December, 2.30pm-4pm UK time, where we'll be interrogate the response of Western governments with a panel of experts.