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Coordinating a national Risk Communication strategy to fight against COVID-19: insights from Nigeria
Coordinating a national Risk Communication strategy to fight against COVID-19: insights from Nigeria

A case study by the Nigerian Presidential Task Force and the UK Government in Nigeria

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Updated over a week ago

Country and region: Nigeria

Organisation: Nigerian Presidential Task Force (PTF) and the UK Government

Point person and Role: Joseph Mutah, Head of the Risk Communication Pillar, Presidential Task Force and Adam Cohen and Miriam McGrath, Communications Specialists, UK Government

Population served by the programme: 200 million

Unique characteristics of the setting: Nigeria is a country with differing demographic and economic regional profiles and significant cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. There are five main languages for communication. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, levels of engagement in the response vary among states. The risk of mis- or disinformation spreading and reducing compliance, including via ‘black’ channels like WhatsApp, is high.

Number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 at time of publishing: 60,430 cases and 1,115 deaths, detailed data available on the Nigeria Incidence and Response Tracker

Briefly describe the key components of your COVID-19 response programme:

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the President of Nigeria convened a National Task Force to coordinate efforts to tackle it. The UK Government was asked to work collaboratively with the Presidential Task Force (PTF) to support their Risk Communication response to COVID-19, through the Risk Communication pillar of the Task Force.

Our work has covered three key activities:

  • Gathering communities’ insights: A key component of the project has been encouraging a data-driven communication response to COVID-19. At the request of the PTF, a team of communication specialists from the UK Government commissioned weekly polling using a combination of nationwide and state-specific questions. These polls are designed to gain insight into what messages are reaching citizens, how effective they are at changing behaviour and to identify concerns and issues rising from the population. The polling data gathered has been an important tool to enhance the work of the Risk Communication pillar of the PTF. It has also been used more broadly by the National Coordinator during press conferences; by agencies and donors within the PTF including the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, UNICEF and USAID to inform their response programmes; and by other organisations, such as BBC Media Action, to better understand what content is needed at a more grass-roots level.

  • Coordinating communication activities and partners: When our project began, there was a flurry of donor activities in Nigeria as many agencies looked to provide support on the COVID-19 response. Communication specialists from the UK Government provided technical advice to the Risk Communication team on how to avoid duplication of programmes and support efficient use of donor resources. At the beginning of the response, the PTF took time to speak to other agencies working in the area and the Risk Communication team mapped out their activities. This mapping exercise allowed us to identify communication gaps and organisations which were best placed to take the lead on the different elements of the response. This included leading data collection and weekly polling work, producing content, and mobilising existing community volunteers to deliver messages at the community level. By working closely across agencies delivering communication messages, we have been able to create synergies and strengthen the COVID-19 response in Nigeria. This was made possible by our capacity to create a holistic approach based on a clear flow of processes - data collection, followed by content creation and community engagement.

  • Promoting community engagement: The PTF led on the production and implementation of a Community Engagement plan, supported by the technical advice of the UK Government and other partners. This plan aims to mobilise existing networks of community volunteers to disseminate key messages on prevention and desired behaviours among communities, especially focusing on regions of greater vulnerability. This included activating networks of volunteers built by organisations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross and the WHO to tackle other infectious diseases, as well as graduates participating in National Service with the National Orientation Agency. We trained these networks, both in socially-distanced settings and online, on key messages to share with their local populations. Our plan was guided by our polling data, which helped us to prioritise messages and activities in emerging COVID-19 hotspots, increasing our capacity to provide a timely response in those settings.

Image: Advertisement created by the Presidential Task Force informing about use of facemasks, delivered by a social behaviour change expert and aiming at amplifying trust in messaging.

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

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked in collaboration with the UK Government to map all on-going or planned communication activities led by agencies working on the COVID-19 response. This preliminary assessment highlighted the need for more data on audience and community perceptions. We then set up our weekly polling system which quickly became a key pillar informing our larger communication response. We then designed our processes to allow partners to create data-driven communications bursts - communication campaigns quickly developed over a few weeks and live for short periods of time - using a mix of channels including radio, TV and community engagement. This approach was helpful to reflect rapidly-shifting priorities and attitudes.

Given the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, we are continuously developing and adapting our programme using an iterative approach. This flexibility allows us to respond quickly to emerging challenges and needs. Our Risk Communication response has so far had two phases, with a mid-point review in July to assess what was working, what thematic areas should be prioritised, and how process and structures could be improved.

Image: Campaign video targeting elderly and vulnerable people.

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

Taking the time at the beginning to map activity and engage different agencies has proven very valuable. It is always tempting to dive straight into communications activity, particularly when it involves responding to a fast-moving crisis. Yet, by building in a period for reflection at the start of the pandemic, we have been able to concentrate our efforts to fill identified gaps, where real value can be added. In addition, engaging with other actors early on in the pandemic has increased our capacity to build a coordinated response. For instance, we were able to share data and information easily with other organisations and to benefit from their respective expertise to improve the quality of our programme.

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

Due to travel and movement restrictions, we had to work remotely with partners in the UK and in Nigeria. This was a significant challenge for us as we used to work with partners in-country and organise face-to-face meetings. We were able to mitigate this challenge using digital platforms and software and we benefited from this set-up to organise larger and more regular meetings and calls, despite lack of digital communication infrastructures and patchy connections.

Regional lockdowns in Nigeria also led us to adapt our polling methodology to conduct all surveys over the phone. Although this methodology minimised the risk of COVID-19 transmission, it impeded our capacity to reach individuals with no access to phones or vulnerable groups such as Internally Displaced Persons, women or disabled persons who might feel less free to speak over the phone. We are currently collaborating with UNICEF to be trained on their data collection mechanisms, including U-Report and on-the-ground fieldwork, to overcome this issue.

Image: Polling targeting young people via UNICEF’s engagement tool U-Report.

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

Through the Community Engagement plan, the Presidential Task Force has agreed actions to use existing networks of community leaders and volunteers to reach communities and get their feedback on our communication programmes. In addition, the UK Government has partnered with UNICEF to gather qualitative data using their existing infrastructures and network. This collaboration has provided us a richer set of data further indicating information gaps, risk factors for transmission and disease, and misinformation and concerns circulating in the communities. So far we have received over 200,000 responses in two short polls on misinformation and behaviors.

Feedback we have received so far have been used to iteratively adapt our communication strategy and to shape our recommendations to partners.

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