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YASH against coronavirus

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Dr Manoj Kumar Patairiya, Adviser & Head, NCSTC gives an overview on the newly launched programme on health and risk communication ‘YASH’ with a focus on COVID-19, while Express Healthcare recalls some campaigns about health and sanitation which became very popular and emerged as powerful tools in India’s fight against some major public health challenges

The world is reawakening to the importance of a robust public healthcare system to its socio-economic progress. And, it is becoming equally clear that effective communication to promote and sustain healthy behaviours and attitudes will be crucial to the success of public health interventions. 

So, the recent launch of a programme on health and risk communication, called ‘Year of Awareness on Science & Health (YASH)’ by National Council for Science & Technology Communication (NCSTC), Department of Science & Technology (DST) is a very welcome move. The programme, with a focus on COVID-19, is an endeavour to disseminate information about best practices which will be vital to curbing the transmission of the virus and its management. The acronym of the programme, YASH is interesting because translated in Sanskrit, it means both, ‘success’ and ‘fame’. If implemented effectively, it could be key to winning our fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, any health communication initiative needs to be fortified with participation from all stakeholders, use of interesting tools and techniques, strategic goals, properly segmented audiences and effective messages. 

So, how does YASH rate on all these fronts? Dr Manoj Kumar Patairiya, Adviser & Head, NCSTC, divulges in detail on all these areas and more.  

A broad vision 

Outlining a clear vision is vital while designing and implementing health promotion strategies and campaigns. Does YASH have its vision in place?

Dr Patairiya answers in the affirmative and states, “YASH aspires to further develop the NCSTC experience with multidisciplinary approaches and implement a year-long programme on health and risk communication on the current and emerging issues. It will cover science communication priorities related to preparedness for disasters, crises, hazards, calamities and emergencies, health risks, climate change, sustainable development goals (SDGs), occupational and lifestyle problems, risk prevention in digital technologies and cybersecurity, risk reduction in traditional and local knowledge practices, etc., and thereby cater to a wide audience.” 

“The overall concept behind evolving such an initiative is not to just diffuse information among the masses and pacify public concerns but also to nurture an informed public response to enable a reasonable, thoughtful, and collaborative solution. The necessity of two-way risk communication process has also been highlighted by FAO/WHO in the context of COVID-19,” he adds.

He also informs, “YASH envisages specific outcomes like improved risk understanding amongst target groups. This includes working with local sensitivities, belief systems, traditions and indigenous knowledge. Through the use of different channels of communication, YASH intends to drive attitudinal changes among target groups to enable them to deal with the challenges that arise from the COVID-19 crisis and cope up to the situation with courage and confidence.” 

Informing that the YASH programme’s aims to connect healthcare communication and delivery of care to improve health outcomes, he lists its key objectives in the long run: 

  • To minimise risks at all levels with the help of public communication and outreach activities at large.
  • To promote public understanding of common minimum science for community care and health safety measures like personal sanitation and hygiene, physical distancing, and maintaining desired collective behaviours, etc.
  • To develop and disseminate science communication software, enhance science coverage in mass media including illustrative interpretations especially to reduce the fear of risks and build confidence with a dose of necessary understanding.
  • To assess and rationalise community preparedness and perceptions.
  • To inculcate a scientific temperament for adopting sustainable healthy lifestyles, and nurture scientific culture among masses and societies.

A collaborative and comprehensive effort 

Highlighting the role of health and risk communication in the society to encourage informed decision-making among the masses, promote community preparedness and build a sustainable culture of health and hygiene, Dr Patairiya informs, “To facilitate necessary actions and enhance the preparedness of the society to address healthcare challenges, this programme was developed with the involvement of academia, researchers, media and voluntary organisations. The initiative is specifically targeted at overcoming barriers to good health and wellbeing that arise due to multiple factors such as low literacy, cultural and religious differences or language barriers. Encouraging public participation in risk-elated and reciprocal communication processes open routes for better decision making and stakeholders’ involvement to build capacities. It also enables communities to develop a sense of awareness, encourage analytical thinking and make informed decisions, especially when it comes to healthcare and risks for their wellbeing.”

Listing down the activities which will be undertaken by the YASH programme: 

  • India is home to different faiths, customs, and belief systems. Hence, science communication programmes need to be weaved into the cultural fabric of the nation. Generally, people tend to listen to the preachings of different faith leaders; this trust and belief on faith leaders can be harnessed to convey scientific and health messages to the masses for their benefit.
  • The volunteers would be trained to help spread health awareness in their respective areas and languages.
  • Science cartoons (scientoons), comics-based information materials, audio-visual programmes, clips, etc., are planned.
  • Digital, e-books, pamphlets, booklets (digital/ print), infographics, etc., may be prepared. Street plays, theatre, skits, puppetry, folklore, etc., may be developed.
  • Swasthya Yatra, Jatha, Vigyan Mela, exhibitions, gallery, etc., may be organised.
  • Evolving and using community-based effective science communication approaches and software through virtual/ digital interface (WhatsApp/ SMS/ others). 
  • Traditional and creative yet nonphysical contact modes for compliance with health instructions thereby reducing avoidable pressure on the healthcare systems.  
  • Applying local languages for risk communications with illustrative interpretations about the role and responsibilities of people to support health emergency management.
  • Encouraging scientific evidence-based reporting by media about the afflictions and the measures taken to address them.
  • Encouraging personal sanitation and hygiene, making masks locally using the guidelines issued by the office of PSA, etc. 
  • Developing science communication software on radio, video, films, books, booklets, science cartoons, and other science media-related activities.
  • Activities under ongoing programmes to develop young change-makers as responders during natural or manmade disasters and calamities.
  • Folk media (puppetry, nukkad-natak, song, drama, etc.) based and digital science communication
  • STEMM demonstration activities, fairs and exhibitions, and target group-specific outreach initiatives, etc. 

“On a long term basis, YASH designed to enhance public participation in health and risk-related reciprocal communication processes to open routes for better decision making and stakeholders’ involvement,” informs Dr Patairiya. 

Dr Patairiya also highlights that NCSTC has organised a variety of programmes and projects earlier with a countrywide presence and high impact. It has also covered health communication programs such as Year of Scientific Awareness, Year of Biodiversity, Year of Planet Earth, Vigyan Jatha, Eco-WaSH Literacy, Science Express, etc.

A look at past successes

In the past too, some of India’s biggest public health successes are linked to effective design and implementation of mass campaigns on health and hygiene. Both private and public stakeholders have collaborated on these health communication endeavours to shape good health behaviours by resonating with the masses, be it about disease screening and prevention, sanitation, anti-alcohol or anti-tobacco campaigns and many other health-related issues through the use of television or radio, billboards and posters, magazines and newspapers as well as folk media and other innovative mediums.  

Some of the most popular health and hygiene campaigns include: 

Eradicating polio: In 2019, India celebrated five years as a polio-free nation. And, no one can deny the crucial role played by polio mass media campaigns which persuaded parents across the country to ensure “do boond zindagi ki” (two drops of polio vaccine) to every child every time.

And, when our biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan was the one doing the advising and persuasion in his baritone voice, how could India not listen? 

Bringing down HIV infections: India’s battle against the HIV epidemic is a public health success story. There has been a steady decline in the number of new HIV infections thanks to various measures including powerful health communication campaigns. 

Remember the Balbir Pasha ads? Built around a fictional character, the campaign used a storyboard to place the central figure, Balbir Pasha, in high-risk sexual circumstances, with common people in different settings speculating whether Balbir Pasha will get AIDS. The campaign aimed to educate about safe sexual practices, encourage the use of condoms, improve awareness about AIDS, personalise HIV risks and encourage discussions about the diseases in the public sphere.  

Likewise, kids born in the 80s and earlier have seen and heard, Shabana Azmi educating the reporters, “AIDS choone se nahi failta.  Broadcasted on Doordarshan, it busted major myths about AIDS and HIV. 

Controlling TB: India has a long way to go in its fight against TB but several initiatives have helped us gain whatever achievements we have gained in this area. For instance; Balgam Bhai, India’s TB fighting superhero. He went around asking people with a cough, “Do hafte ho gaye kya?” which became a popular catchphrase with great recall. The campaign highlighted cough as the commonest symptom of TB, helped spread awareness about the disease, and emphasised on the importance of assessment and testing to defeat TB. 

Curbing open defecation: Vidya Balan has been the ambassador for a nationwide initiative to end open defecation in India, be it Nirmal Bharat or Swachch Bharat. She is the face of an ad campaign that aims to usher social change by propagating the need for toilets in rural areas, especially for women.  

Jahan Soch Wahan Shauchalay’, the slogan of this campaign works at multiple levels. It highlights the importance of sanitation and hygiene to ensure good health, projects women as agents of change, emphasises how the use of toilets is a mark of progressiveness and more. 

Anti-tobacco, menstrual health: In another public-service ad that is currently aired on our TV sets and theatre screens, is a smart one, we have seen Akshay Kumar batting for menstrual hygiene while dissuading people from smoking. Set in rural India, the ad highlights how money spent on tobacco is wasted and will destroy health while using it to buy sanitary pads for women will save them from several diseases caused by lack of menstrual hygiene. 

While the impact of these initiatives has been varied, each of them seeks to reinforce positive health behaviours, sway social norms, provide awareness and support, as well as empower individuals and communities to make informed decisions with the relevant and targeted communication. 

Hopefully, YASH too will turn out to be successful and aid not only in overcoming the COVID-19 crisis but also in building a healthier India, in the long run. 

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