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What are some practical ways for our organisations to do community engagement at a safe distance?
What are some practical ways for our organisations to do community engagement at a safe distance?
Jen Palmer avatar
Written by Jen Palmer
Updated over a week ago

In this section we share some examples of innovative ways that organisations have been doing community engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic or during other recent outbreaks.

Learning from communities:

  • Conduct rapid assessments to understand perceptions and behaviours. Formative research is an important first step in designing outbreak control programmes that are acceptable and effective. Often the pressure and constraints of delivering programmes in outbreaks means that this step is omitted or compromised resulting in programmes that may not be well accepted. Conducting assessments of behaviours and perceptions does not need to be time consuming. The WHO have developed a simple rapid assessment survey for COVID-19 which can be done in person or over the phone. The Wash’Em Rapid Assessments are qualitative tools designed for use in outbreaks.

  • Review and/or map communication and information chains. In many communities there will be individuals with a mobile phone or a radio – they could become key information providers when physical access becomes limited. Remember to assess who has access to what information and how trusted they are, especially by the most vulnerable and marginalized people.

  • Share all insights about community perceptions to allow for programme improvement across the sector. If each organisation establishes independent learning and accountability mechanisms this can create confusion. In Bangladesh, BBC Media Action and Translators Without Borders are working to document community perceptions and then share this publically with all local actors.

  • Set up mechanisms to continue to learn from populations over time. Perceptions are likely to change over the course of the outbreak so it’s important to identify ways of continuing to learn from populations over time. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in DR Congo, Oxfam tested a Community Perception Tracker. This involved Oxfam’s teams using mobile devices to systematically record timely qualitative information on perceptions, fears, questions and concerns that people had. This information was regularly analysed alongside epidemiological data and provided key trends across different locations, age and gender groups. Programme teams used these trends to adapt their activities according to needs and preferences of affected communities. The data was also shared with external coordination platforms to advocate for the inclusion of people’s voices.

  • Involve local community stakeholders in decision-making and message creation. Invite local community stakeholders, such as small business holders, public transport representatives and WASH service providers to join national and district response teams, to ensure their perspectives are reflected in decisions that are made and messages that are adopted.

Using communication channels creatively:

  • Radio call-in shows allowing communities to connect with local experts. Radio also has the ability to create the impression of a large shared community. Call-in shows can help break down barriers across geographies and between different levels of society. Some examples of how radio is being used creatively at this time are available here. UNHCR has developed this useful resource for creative radio-based communication.

  • Radio dramas incorporating COVID 19 messages. Radio dramas, when developed locally and creatively, can be a powerful way of changing behaviours during an epidemic through narratives that local communities can relate to. In Rwanda, Wateraid has been developing a radio drama which has now been adapted to incorporate coronavirus messages. While in many settings, in-person communal listening groups are often used to help people digest and discuss radio content, such gatherings would need to be reduced or suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Telephone call centres and hotlines. IFRC has developed some practical guidance on setting up phone hotlines including examples from how this was used in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. ACF are currently running phone hotlines in Jordan and Iraq with staff members sharing information and learning from communities. The safety of these communication channels can be improved if staff and guests can avoid having to travel to recording studios and call centres, with as much work as possible done from their homes or at a safe distance from others.

Image above: A slide from an IFRC training course on COVID-19 risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) – showing how their programmes are being adapted

Image above: An ACF staff member in Iraq makes calls to past and present program participants to share messages about COVID-19. Calls are made from home to minimise risk to staff.

  • SMS, voice based messages and chat services. At the moment we are seeing lots of organisations make use of voice or SMS based information sharing services. There are also ways of making these services more interactive. UNHCR has developed guidance on key things to consider for two-way SMS services and chatbots. This webinar about a study during a cholera outbreak in Bangladesh shows that messaging can be a very effective way of changing behaviour during outbreaks. Viamo are providing a range of creative mobile phone based technologies to address COVID-19. For example, in Nepal they are encouraging people to record their own stories and experiences and share them on hotlines. In Burkina Faso they are facilitating a poetry slam about COVID-19. They are also working with Wanji Games to provide interactive audio games that are appropriate in areas where people do not have smartphones. The World Health Organisation also operates a WhatsApp system to respond to categories of common questions on COVID-19 through private messages.

  • Involve respected local leaders, local artists and celebrities in information sharing. In some settings engaging celebrities that people already relate to and identify with can be a powerful way of promoting action. Having artists work together to create entertaining but informative songs or jingles can work well to unify a campaign message. Here are some examples of this being done in Zambia and Bangladesh. Similarly, in many cultures religious leaders are looked to in times of uncertainty and are likely to be influential in outbreaks. Engaging Imams, priests and other religious leaders can be important at this time. Faith-based organisations are being asked to play multiple roles in the response to COVID-19. For example, religious organisations have been asked to examine how they can implement physical distancing measures in their activities such as by reducing in-person religious gatherings, respond to the social, spiritual and safety needs of their members that may be impacted by disease control measures, and presenting information about COVID-19 in the context of shared values and honored traditions.

  • Community support networks. In many countries we are seeing communities organise to support each other during this outbreak. For example, in the United Kingdom, UK Mutual Aid has helped to coordinate and support the establishment of thousands of local volunteer groups to support older people, other vulnerable individuals and those who are self-isolating by delivering food and connecting people to a range of services. Their website has a range of resources that could be used to support the establishment of these kinds of groups in other settings. In some settings a ‘traffic light’ system, involving placing coloured cards in windows is being used to communicate when people are in need of support – again this idea is simple to replicate in low and middle income settings. In South Sudan, the UNHCR has mobilised secondary school students in their scholarship programme to work with community health workers and leaders to safely disseminate COVID-19 messages door-to-door in refugee camps. Social messaging services like WhatsApp can be a great way to connect community groups. Some international organisations such as World Vision International are now using online training courses to equip their outreach workers worldwide to share COVID-19 information. Upon graduation these people are added to very large organisational WhatsApp networks to receive new messages and circulate them among their communities.

  • COVID-19 information in a range of accessible formats. WaterAid have started creating materials which incorporate sign language to ensure people with hearing impairments are not missing out on information at this time.

Want to know more about COVID-19 and community engagement?

Editor's note

Author: Jennifer Palmer
Review: Sian White, Eva Niederberger, Sheillah Simyu, Jenala Chipungu
Last update: 11.05.2020

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