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Empowering vulnerable communities to deal with the secondary impacts of COVID-19 through audio-based phone communication
Empowering vulnerable communities to deal with the secondary impacts of COVID-19 through audio-based phone communication

A case study by Gram Vaani Community Media in India

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Updated over a week ago

Country: India

Point person and Role: Aaditeshwar Seth, Director and Co-founder

Population served by the programme: approximately 1 million

Number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 at time of publishing: 1,290,284 confirmed cases and 30,657 deaths.

Image: Women listening to their own voice recorded on the IVR-Mobile Vaani

Background of the project and unique characteristics of the setting

When India instituted a nationwide lockdown in response to COVID-19, it created numerous challenges for people in low-income groups, people in rural areas and migrant workers. Unemployment rates increased dramatically and people were often much more worried about day-to-day survival than the transmission of the disease.

Describe the key components of your COVID-19 response programme

Gram Vaani means ‘voice of the village’ and we are a social technology organisation. We have developed a mobile-phone based platform called ‘Mobile Vaani’, designed to be an equivalent to social media but for rural populations who may not have access to smartphones and digital technologies. Mobile Vaani uses an intelligent IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system that allows people to call a number and leave a message about their community, or listen to messages left by others. It was created prior to the pandemic, but we have scaled up our services so that this platform can act as a means of informing and providing relief to hard-to-reach communities.

In adapting this technology for a COVID-19 response, we have done the following:

  1. Developed audio messages that are designed to build community awareness and counter misinformation. These are based on government guidelines, and are translated into engaging audio content in a range of local languages.

  2. Captured community experiences of the lived reality of the COVID-19 outbreak and its influence on social and economic life. In particular, this allowed us to highlight issues faced by migrant workers and rural communities, which prompted a policy response from local administrations and response actors.

  3. Rolled-out a COVID-19 self-assessment survey allowing people to discuss their symptoms over the phone. This service can connect them to medical care if needed, and has been key in reducing the burden on the health system at this time.

  4. Developed a large network of partners who are contributing to the COVID-19 response. When needs are identified within communities, we connect them to partners in health, nutrition, education, child safety, gender and special needs. This allows them to provide rapid support to individuals and regions most in need.

  5. Channeled rapid relief assistance to communities and individuals facing hardship. This was achieved through volunteer-led initiatives which mobilized local resources and contacts.

What process did you use when designing your COVID-19 response programme?

Our COVID-19 response has been focused on repurposing our existing services and technology to meet the needs of communities. We were fortunate that we have more than seven years of experience with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology in India and our teams were able to work remotely from home.

At the start of the pandemic, we developed a series of questions that we thought would be common among the communities we serve, we developed answers to these based on global and national resources and guidelines, and then recorded audio messages that were integrated into our IVR system. Our early work focused on disease transmission, symptoms, and preventative actions.

This component of our work continues, but as the pandemic progressed, we learned more from communities as they began to record their experiences of the pandemic on our IVR system. Our findings led us to adapt our work to focus more on the secondary impacts of the pandemic, such as food security, employment, access to health services, gender roles and mental health.

We advise our volunteer teams at the community-level on how to respond to these challenges and the volunteer teams have been involved in improving access to food kits, helping people to access government cash transfer benefits and informing people about job opportunities within public work schemes that are being commissioned to address unemployment challenges. We continue to use an iterative approach to develop audio content and to inform other response strategies. This is based on continuous feedback from our callers, community volunteers and partners. We have done a lot of learning and re-learning during the pandemic. Where possible we have shared these lessons publicly to help others as they navigate similar difficult situations.

Image: Volunteers disseminating leaflets to explain how to use Mobile Vaani

What is one thing that has been working well so far and is there something other programmes could learn from this?

Our technology and approach put us in a unique position to understand the experiences of communities and advocate for individuals who need support at this time. We have also actively been conducting surveys among our users. Our recent survey indicated that many people have now been out of work for more than 3 months and this is creating major concerns around nutrition and food security, especially for children. Based on this we are now supporting the Right to Food campaign.

Our campaigns have addressed the secondary impacts of COVID 19 in a number of tangible ways. For example, our work has led to the distribution of new ration cards; improved quality of care at quarantine centres for returned migrant workers; the establishment of local phone helplines; and an increase in the number of people registering their demand for work on government employment portals. In collaboration with other advocacy groups, our work also influenced Supreme Court legislation and guidelines relating to the safe transportation of migrant workers back to their villages via special trains and the subsequent coordination of relief support for them.

What is one challenge that you have encountered and how are you trying to overcome this?

One of the things that we have observed is that COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities in our society and highlighted long-term gaps in social protection measures. Many ad-hoc systems were put in place to respond to COVID-19 and improve access to relief measures. We are seeing evidence of these new measures having a real impact on people’s experiences of the pandemic. However, we feel that more advocacy needs to be done to make sure that these measures contribute to real long-term change. To address this we have been using the hashtag #notstatusquo to draw attention to the need to systematise these temporary COVID-19 systems and build better technologies to support social security and welfare mechanisms within India.

How have you been engaging with communities throughout your programme and what feedback have you received?

We have several years of experience of engaging with communities via our IVR lines and this was key for us to scale up our work as part of our COVID-19 response. Our COVID-19 platform has been flooded with requests for help as well as notes of gratitude since its launch. We are continuously learning and striving to provide a truly user-centric experience to the communities served. This prompted us to also conduct several research studies to provide deeper insights into the lived realities of the pandemic.

We have focused on building empathy and understanding among the users and between response organisations and those they are working with. This is why we place a strong focus on sharing real stories. We feel this is particularly important to overcome the fear and anxiety that many people are experiencing and to address the social stigma around the disease. We have tried to use a range of formats to ensure that our audio messages capture a range of voices and are entertaining and engaging. This mix of content seems to relieve some of the stress people are experiencing and it has enabled listeners to apply and follow government advice.

Image: A map of India showing where Mobile Vaani is being used as part of COVID-19 response.

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