BY NIKHILA NATARAJAN
New York, May 13 (IANS) Some 50 days ago, Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown from 7 Lok Kalyan Marg. Around the same time, Donald Trump’s White House announced social distancing guidelines. Seen purely through the public communications lens, the world’s two largest democracies are a stunning contrast. Both, as also their opposite numbers other than Xi Jinping in Beijing, had at best a week to calibrate the fine line between alerting their people and avoiding total chaos. Of telling societies that the unthinkable is real and here. That there’s no vaccine on the ready. The only research and data are real time. And the militaries nor the medical systems are anywhere near ready.
The human catastrophe rages on. The sophistication and consistency of messaging in India and the US has been wildly different. Leaky shutdowns have fatal consequences, the American style version has proven. In India, heartbreaking images of rotis lying on the train tracks — after an empty goods train crushed 15 migrant labourers — have made insomniacs of us all. No matter how tough the lockdown and the government’s digital communication, the poorest make their decisions based on an entirely different set of factors. A health emergency is always a communications emergency. The value of public messaging, like of public goods, is its percolation to the most vulnerable, whose means to access those messages are likely to be among the least sophisticated.
The US Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention, America’s premier public health agency compares the communication imperative during crises to the air travel analogy. “Flying in an airplane is an event controlled by others and aligns with a risk perceived as less acceptable. The same is true for outbreaks and public health crises. Before communicating during an outbreak, think through how risk perceptions might influence the affected populations and, therefore, how you communicate about those risks,” says the field epidemiology guide of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, which devotes an entire chapter to communicating during an outbreak. America’s White House has broken every rule here. Look closely and India’s organically driven messaging generally aligns with CDC gold standard. More so, Kerala, which has become an international case study in flattening the curve. Twenty times more Keralites have died of the illness in another country than at home, in India, The Economist reports.
Today, places which have the infection under control share nearly identical guidelines but some got there in ways that actually made the curve steeper and took longer to influence how people behaved simply because communication was less consistent. Even within America, New York resisted scientists’ advice while Seattle closed down weeks earlier. The result: The US West Coast crushed the curve, New York became the country’s epicenter.
It was mid-January when the U recorded its first diagnosis of the coronavirus, in a Seattle suburb. Half a world away, India’s first case came in the same month, on January 30, from Kerala.A
By May 9, COVID-19 has killed more than 77,000 Americans and more than a million people in the US have fallen sick due to the coronavirus. On a comparative scale, India’s graph looks like the flattened curve that America desperately wants to see. India has lost less than 2,000 lives to COVID19, according to official data. The US is recording 23 deaths per 100,000 population, India is at 0.14.
From February 6, when COVID19 claimed the first American victim in Santa Clara County, California, the US in less than 90 days, has lost more lives than the number of US soldiers killed in combat during the nine-year-long Vietnam War alone.AWe pick 4 peak themes from the time of the first reported case in both countries, and using tennis parlance, assess the US versus India scoreline.
Single overriding health comms objective (SOHCO), US 0-1
The CDC urges public communication leaders in a health crisis to headline their single overriding health communication objective or SOCHO at the beginning and end of their briefings. Trump has usually offered dozens, along with a rotating supporting cast of characters around a crowded stage. On any given day in the US, the daily coronavirus briefings (less frequent since late April) could throw up a wide range of guest appearances. Television audiences have waited for nearly two hours to get their fix of medical updates from doctors rather than Trump playing physician. The conflation of the political and medical has been on the daily menu. Trump touts drugs that are unproven and untested and with every passing day, effectively letting people take their pick in the name of freedom of expression. His suggestion — part question, part thinking aloud — set off alarm bells across the country: “So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way.” And I think you said you’re going to test that too. Sounds interesting.
These movie-length press briefings happen from a room no larger than a big size living room, the number of people inside at any time violates the spirit of the White House’s own social distancing guidelines. The non-stop confusion of the US response to the coronavirus is now shifting into an even more bewildering stage: the rush to reopen, without a rubric. It’s not like the rubric doesn’t exist, the White House has shelved it.
Ten thousand miles away, one 29 minute national address by Modi sent 1.3 billion Indians packed in a landmass about one-third the size of the US into the largest lockdown in human history.”If you can’t handle these 21 days, this country and your family will go back 21 years,” is how the India lockdown for an initial period of three weeks began, just after midnight of March 24. “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes,” Modi, announced on national television, giving Indians less than four hours’ notice before the order took effect at 12:01 am. After he did that, day to day updates have been left to two mid-level bureaucrats (24-27 years of service in the country’s civil service). India’s go-to COVID19 spokespersons endeavour for consistency and accuracy of messaging, so the audience sees the Govt is speaking in one voice through multiple stakeholders. Ministers want this spotlight too. But more often than not they, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman for eg, kick in when there’s a specific announcement to be shared. Unlike in the US where states are locked in an ebay kind of bargain hunt for essential supplies, Centre-State goodwill in India has typically been at a high.
Setting expectations, US 0-2
“Don’t over promise or foster unrealistic expectations, particularly about certainty of the situation or a resolution,” says the CDC. We all know how that went down in the White House. First, Trump promised a vaccine “really fast”. Then, he began playing scientist. At a press conference, he declared that chloroquine had “been approved” by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for Covid-19. It hadn’t been approved. Next day, he said he is “a big fan” of the drug, and why not use it for people on the ventilator, who are in “really, really bad shape”. Trump tweeted, “hydroxychloroquine & azithromycin, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” He pushed the idea that the drugs should be used “immediately” to treat the coronavirus. “What the hell do you have to lose?” It got so bad that disinfectant manufacturer Lysol scrambled to put out a notice for Americans not to ingest cleaning products. In India, the science is left to the scientists. The political leadership has made it clear that the death toll will be catastrophic if the lockdown eases up too soon. Pune-based Serum Institute of India, a world leader of vaccines by volume, plans this year to produce up to 60 million doses of a potential vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 against the new coronavirus that is under clinical trial in Britain. On his part, Modi hasn’t strayed into science. Instead, he has taken calls to send relief to friendly countries and multiple video calls with state chief ministers where he listened at least as much as he spoke.
Behavioural cues, US 0-3
The CDC recommends that public communicators identify behavioural factors that increase risks and then recommend actions to mitigate. Masks fall into this category. The president’s own behaviour has increased risks for all Americans. The CDC recommended masks, the US President said “it’s optional” and has refused to wear one till date. Trump’s die-hard supporters, taking their behavioural cues from their president, have stormed state legislatures with lethal weapons, demanding that social distancing rules be trashed. “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. This is not a country that was built for this,” Trump has been insisting while his best doctors beseech the nation to isolate. “America will again and soon be open for business. Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting.” Trump’s pet theory has been that a lockdown itself will cause more deaths than the coronavirus. Modi, a friend whose handle WH chose to unfollow recently, has had no qualms using a traditional cotton scarf to cover his mouth and nose while announcing India’s lockdown extension. The practice follows in his other appearances. Not surprisingly, the machinery and citizenry have followed through.
Technology use, US 0-4
A “call center equipped to answer inquiries from the affected population, the worried well, and healthcare providers seeking information” is another recommendation from the CDC. In America, where this guidance comes from, COVID19 information comes from wherever you get your news. Large hospital systems like Johns Hopkins have become go-to websites for data and insights. The “affected population” is everyone, and there is yet no single authoritative source where people can ask questions and be answered. In contrast, India cranked out a chatbot in record time, in the third week of March. The MyGov Coronavirus chatbot is part of a larger clutch of mobile technology-led interventions being developed and used at scale by the Indian government on incredibly short notice, in response to a real time health emergency. Aarogya Setu, Modi’s mobile app for contact tracing, claims 80 million downloads in less than a month since launch. The MyGov chatbot is one of the Indian government’s early moves to push factual information to the Indian public and quell fake news around the domestic outbreak. Kerala, a standout state for crushing the curve, has mobilised some thousands of teams to man call centres, care for the quarantined people and supply meals to the stranded, including migrant workers.
On May 12, Modi addressed India at around the same time that America’s top infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci testified in the US Senate on the domestic outbreak. While Modi announced a more than $260 billion coronavirus economic relief package designed to make the world’s second most populous nation more self-reliant, Fauci issued a warning that sounded a lot like Modi’s back when India’s lockdown began: Suffering and death if states rush to re-open.
(Nikhila Natarajan can be contacted at @byniknat. The views expressed are personal.)