“the organisational challenge of epidemic control is always intensive [...] Community engagement is usually done painstakingly and in person [...to balance the need] to do things fast and at scale while also ensuring control measures are contextually appropriate.” (Annie Wilkinson)
As indicated in the above description of community engagement, face-to-face communication with stakeholders and the public is typically a large part of the intensive and painstaking work done to bring epidemics under control. However, the physical distancing requirements of the COVID-19 response means that many of the interactions that would normally happen in person now need to be minimised. Below we outline some general principles for community engagement at this time.
Develop a phased approach to your COVID-19 response. During the early stages of the outbreak, and as cases decline, it might be possible to do some in person activities such as house-to-house visits or work within small neighbourhood groups (where physical distancing can be maintained). In many countries these one-to-one interactions are highly valued and seen as the preferred mode of communication by communities. However, at the peak of the outbreak these in-person interactions may need to cease to protect staff and communities. We suggest developing a staged approach to your programme according to the WHO response levels. This would require making plans for how you would adapt your programme at different stages of the response.
Avoid all large group gatherings. At the moment in most settings, hygiene promotion and community engagement activities should not include bringing together large groups of people.
Encourage staff to lead by example. See our article about measures that hygiene promoters can take in order to maintain physical distancing.
Build community networks. Once key local stakeholders and trusted individuals have been identified, find ways of establishing communication networks with these people should in-person communication become infeasible. Make sure to use the ‘window of opportunity’ before the outbreak becomes too serious to establish these networks.
Continue to learn from communities and adapt to their needs. Formative research and opportunities to learn from communities about their needs and priorities is recognised as being a key part of good programming. This process will now be more challenging to conduct but is no less critical.
Develop or support local action plans. Globally we have seen communities mobilise to support each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. Find ways that your organisation can encourage and support community level action.
Actively seek out the voices of vulnerable groups. Vulnerable groups may be particularly hard to reach at this time. In particular, working with older people, either in leadership positions or as experienced elders, will be challenging as they could experience severe complications of disease if the disease is transmitted to them during community engagement activities. Separate and more intensive initiatives may need to be implemented to include these groups.
Invest in training frontline staff. Hygiene promoter roles and other roles which require a high degree of community engagement also require diverse skills and sufficient training. Hygiene promoters should be trained on COVID-19 and be given a list of common questions and answers they are likely to encounter. This list should be updated to reflect emerging concerns. Hygiene promoters should also know what is within the responsibilities of their role and what is beyond it. For example, as non-medical professionals they should not make medical judgements or speak about topics that they are unsure of, but rather should refer people to appropriate health services or other information sources as needed.
Ensure messaging is coordinated. To avoid creating confusion or conflicting messaging, ensure messages that your organisation adopts are in line with the broad principles being disseminated by national governments.