COVID 19, Crisis Communication and Risk Perception

Presence of people at the kitchen markets, religious congregations such as mass prayers and funerals, and at the neighborhood tea stalls across the country sends an ominous signal that lockdown and social distancing fail to work to stem the spread of coronavirus. Despite reminders from Primer Minister Sheikh Hasina, Health Minister, and Health Directorate every day through the media about the risk and benefits of staying home and maintaining distance from each other, some people are still oblivious to this. The Police and the Army personnel are patrolling the streets to make sure that people do not throng the street but with limited success. Why are many people not staying at home? Why are lockdown and social distancing not fully effective in Bangladesh? Maybe people are not taking this health risk seriously. But, why not? We tried to look for explanations of this suicidal behavior of people in medical anthropology and communication studies.

Bangladesh officially declared the presence of coronavirus infected cases on March 08; however, discussions and concerns over the consequences of the virus poured into the public and media discourses way before the official declaration. The anxiety and plight of people in Wuhan, China carved out space in intellectual discussions. We were anxiously waiting to see whether it spread to our country. Eventually, the virus traveled to us via Italy when migrant Bangladeshi workers returned home from coronavirus affected Italy. The official declaration of the infected cases in the country heralded our inclusion to the global register of the COVID 19 hit countries.

Since March 08, the government gradually locked down various places based on the identification of cases and continued to encourage people to avoid public meetings and assemblies. To discourage assemblies and enforce social distancing, the government first shut down academic institutions and then all the offices—except banks and emergency services—businesses, and public transports. Some people continue to devise mechanisms to defeating all the measures to go out while the number of infected cases and death tolls are climbing high at a terrifying rate. 

Health communication texts suggest that the perception of risk from disease or disaster shapes people’s response to the risk. An individual’s perception is formed based on their cognitive, cultural, and social factors. Medical anthropology argues that an individual’s perception and analyses of disease correlate with their income, education, and class. People who are educated and have economic capital are more concerned about the fatal transmission of disease. Due to their vast social capital which may include their access to news media and a wider social network they are more inclined to a naturalistic explanation of the disease. A naturalistic etiological explanation sees illness as a result of natural causes such as the attack of germs. On the other hand, working-class people who lack economic as well as social capital are more dependent on a personalistic etiological explanation and rely less on scientific explanations. A personalistic etiological explanation identifies the disease as a consequence of auspicious forces, invisible deities or the action of black magic.

We talked to a cross-section of people to see how they perceived the risk of coronavirus across the country. Our discussions with some rickshaw pullers and domestic helpers reveal that they considered the coronavirus infection as a disease of rich people since they heard from their friends and relatives that people who were coming from abroad were the carriers of this virus. Since nobody came to their slums from abroad, they believed they were out of the reach of the virus. They had no clue about the social transmission process of the virus. Moreover, they cannot afford to confine themselves to the comfort of home as they live hand to mouth. They need to be on the street to sell their labor power for a living. 

A woman surviving on daily wages in a village in the northern part of the country told us in a phone conversation that “we regularly meet our neighbors. My son joins religious congregations at the local mosque. The crowds disperse when any police or army vehicle moves nearby.” She informed that recently many villagers who worked in the garment factories in Dhaka returned to the village and participate in group chats. She heard that coronavirus spreads through unknown people and through people who returned from abroad. She was unaware of the social transmission of the virus. 

Under the influence of some “Islamic” clerics, a section of people believes that the virus is a punishment from Allah and “real” Muslims will not get contaminated by the virus. People could get rid of this virus by asking for Allah’s forgiveness. People make efforts to join prayer congregations at the mosque or religious mass, ignoring warnings of the contamination. 

Measures for lockdown and social distancing tend to crumble across the country for a multitude of reasons. For making them a success, the health communication manual would suggest changing the risk perception. 

We need to figure out what are the socially and culturally acceptable ways to convey messages to people so that they will accept them with minimum hesitation. We also need to find out the appropriate messengers. Communication scholars argue that, in the case of mass communication, the two-stop flow theory still holds currency. It suggests that many people do not directly buy into the message of the mass media unless it is endorsed by their trusted ones. These trusted ones could be religious leaders, teachers, family guardians, community leaders, etc.   

[Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan is a Professor of Film and Media Studies and Dr. Farhan Begum is a Professor of Medical Anthropology and Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka.]

By Dr. A J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan and Dr. Farhana Begum
 Date of Publication: April 22, 2020; The Daily Sun


Articles by DU Researchers