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Some days back, Manipur-based journalist Oinam Doren posted a picture of Thekho Tenee and Louni Roudaone – two trained nurses who selflessly visit the Tungjoy Quarantine Centre on a daily basis, don their PPE kits and communicate with the inmates to know about their health and to guide them with necessary health guidelines. They have been doing this out of sheer will and without any remuneration. That's their aim? It's the well-being of the village and the villagers. Similar is the case with Pratima Barman of Dibrugarh and Anita Medhi of Sonitpur district. The stories of plight of these two ASHA workers amidst the flood and the pandemic were shared by Tora Agarwala in an exclusive story for The Indian Express.
All these names Theko, Louni, Pratima, Anita are embodiments of an entire flock of ASHA and healthcare workers spread across the entire Northeast and are caught adrift amidst a score of pandemics. Because, it is not only the virus, we also have the yearly calamities of flood and landslide to deal with. In the time of a pandemic like this, the old woes become more challenging. The evidence is in the death toll of flood in a few weeks time versus that of COVID-19 in months.
At a dreadful phase like this, it is the ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) that play a prominent role in accelerating the health communication process. The whole concept of health communication itself is defined as the process of dissemination of information to the public about health risks and the preventable measures to tackle with outbreaks and diseases. As the whole world is reeling under a global threat by a virus of which still not much of a clue is at hand, the significance of health communication is paramount. The ASHAs are leading on this front in the rural parts of India, where there are several geographical as well as socio-political barriers. To overcome these barriers and be resilient in their duties is not easy and on top of that, when disasters like flood and landslides hit, the onus becomes heavier.
Regardless of all the hurdles, the ASHAs and other healthcare workers are seen braving the odds and keeping the communication process afloat. They have to brave the river that floods, the road that snaps and the office that submerges to carry on with their duties. In a way, they act as a bridge between the government and the public, although in terms of the havoc flood creates, the bridge analogy may seem uncanny.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has itself been very vocal about the guidelines regarding health communication at a crucial phase like this. They have prepared a draft to propose the importance of community-based platforms in creating awareness and maintaining the communication balance. The WHO guidelines are in compliance with the Red Cross Society and the UN. They have also initiated a campaign to create awareness regarding holistic health concerns with the hashtag #HealthyAtHome. They are taking into consideration the physical, habitual, food as well as the mental health aspects under this campaign.
Apart from the international bodies, the national health authorities as well as the ministries are taking in several measures and campaigns to target the public through online and multimedia mode to make them aware of the threats and precautions of the virus. There has been a colossal flow of information in terms of 24/7 news coverage, televised press conferences provided by both political leaders and health authorities, speeches and video lectures addressing the people by political as well as religious leaders. This massive flow of health information and analyses on the pandemic is extremely necessary and crucial at a phase like this. They have also targeted the youth through Social Media campaigns and videos on YouTube. But, this is not as simple as it sounds. Along with the huge flow of information, there has been a significant spike in the amount of misinformation and disinformation being spread through the online platforms. Not only the online platforms, the news channels are also seen to be fanning the spread of misinformation, whether consciously or unconsciously. This infodemic has posed as a new pandemic amidst a pandemic. This is something inherently related with the health communication process as well. As the ASHAs and other healthcare workers are mere humans only, they can also be corrupted with misinformation, which, in a way may be harmful for the people they disseminate the information to. In some cases, it may create severe complications also.
Referring to COVID-19 as "not just this century's largest public health emergency, but also a communication crisis," UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming has launched the 'Verified' campaign that calls on the global citizens to come forward as 'information volunteers' to spread science-based, verified facts and information over the internet to ensure the safety of them as well as their families in times of a crisis like this. Pressing upon the greater than ever "need for accurate and verified information", Fleming has added that they are targeting the social media platforms and messenger apps like Whatsapp, where the spread of misinformation is phenomenal, to counter the misinformation flood with verified information. There has to be necessary involvement from the state bodies in this regard to carry forward this attempt by the UN through grassroots level so that the health communication process remains uncorrupted by the flood of misinformation.
At a time when we the northeasterners are marred by several parallel pandemics in terms of flood and all, the need for effective health communication is a priority. Several NGOs and student supported groups are launching donation drives for flood and pandemic relief simultaneously. Along with them, many are seen to be disseminating necessary health guidelines during their distribution drives. This is a very positive sign. However, the government in this regard, should step up and encourage the ASHAs and other healthcare workers with pay hikes and cautionary assistance for their transportation and all other required facilities. Also, keeping the concerns only to the communication level will not yield much. Informing the people to keep their health and hygiene at check at a time when they stand looking over their submerged belongings is both tragic and ironical. The government should take immediate measures to look for effective solutions to the yearly miseries rather than making promises after promises.