The role that positive communication strategies can play in efforts to mitigate the coronavirus.
by Valerie Lucas
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in both Kibera and Kenya, demanding innovative responses from the public and private sectors. On March 12th, Kenya recorded its first case of COVID-19, and, as of August 18, 2020, current cases number 30,365 according to the Kenyan Ministry of Health. Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, Kibera, has seen approximately 900 cases of COVID-19 so far and is considered an emerging hotspot in the capital. Kibera has experienced a significant increase in daily reported cases in the country, which is no doubt an underestimate of the actual case count in Kibera, where current testing is inadequate and individuals have limited access to health care services. Of the more than 1,800 tests that CFK has issued, approximately 18.9% have come back positive, more than the 10% positive benchmark that indicates adequate testing. CFK has been part of the rapid response to the pandemic and will continue to work within the Kibera community throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Communication is critical during public health crises, particularly pandemics, which require wide-scale cooperation in practicing sanitation, wearing masks, and social distancing as much as possible. Of course, because of two centuries of resource extraction and labor exploitation, the Kibera community does not have all that it needs to handle the coronavirus pandemic. For example, most Kibera community members are unable to fully social distance because of overcrowded living conditions; 10-by-10-foot structures often house eight to 10 people. However, temporary behavioral changes to reduce viral transmission can certainly save lives in Kibera.
Dispelling Myths & Misconceptions Surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic
Accurate messaging to combat myths and reduce community spread of the virus has become one of CFK’s foremost challenges during this coronavirus pandemic. Though myths about COVID-19 are widespread in Kibera, they are not unique to the community. Recipes for unproven homemade cures, misinformation about community vulnerability, and conspiracy theories about the source of coronavirus have abounded across the globe. Among the more damaging myths in Kibera are those that minimize the seriousness of the virus, falsely claiming that COVID-19 can only affect people in high-income countries, or that being HIV positive blocks coronavirus infections.
To encourage a strong public response to the threat of coronavirus, CFK has been working on best-practice communication tools. The severity of the pandemic has made it difficult for all of us to understand the right steps to take, but one of our new strategies includes positive messaging. Jenny Konkin of the Whole Way House introduced a new communication approach during the Innovation and Hope webinar from the University of British Columbia’s Office of Regional and InternationalCommunity Engagement. The Whole Way House has been focusing on the positive when developing signage and educating others, a strategy that could be useful and effective in Kibera.
Encouraging safe means of connection and highlighting the strength of the Kibera community effort can go a long way. Staying away from others may not always be possible in Kibera, which has an estimated 350,000 people in just five square kilometers, but there are certainly steps that everyone can take to reduce transmission of COVID-19. Communication should not diminish the difficult reality of the situation, which is that of a community that needs much more than it currently has to combat the coronavirus, but it should focus on what people could be doing and should provide them with encouragement in their daily lives.
The Power of Positive Communication
Communication researchers have validated this positivity-focused approach. Messaging that spotlights the positive can be just as effective as messaging that emphasizes potentially negative outcomes, according to Positive Communication in Health and Wellness, a book on positive communication co-edited by UA researcher Margaret Pitts and colleague Thomas J. Socha. CFK’s messaging can also provide hope and encouragement in Kibera while effectively informing how people can respond to COVID-19.
Over the last few months, CFK implemented signage complimenting people on their masks, encouraging elbow bumps and waving from a healthy one-meter distance, and demonstrating how to make homemade soap to promote handwashing. These efforts are of course combined with psychosocial support and home handwashing kits that CFK has been distributing to make these steps more practical for the residents of Kibera.
Mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic requires community buy-in and cooperation, and that cannot be achieved without accurate messaging and effective communication strategies. In the current global environment full of fear, skepticism, and uncertainty, positive communication might be just what we need.