September 22, 2020

What we learned from our “Ask the Experts: COVID-19” webinar series

Expert insights on a range of issues related to COVID-19, including media communication, community engagement, and mental health.

COVID 19 Ask the Experts WebinarAs the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the world into a global lockdown, the need for accurate and transparent health communication in the face of misinformation and sensationalism became clear. In response to this, IAVI’s India office joined forces with the Translational Health and Science Technology Institute (THSTI), India Alliance, and Nature India to present an eight-part “Ask the Experts: COVID-19” webinar series. The series provided expert insights on a range of issues related to COVID-19, including media communication, community engagement, and mental health. Today, reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on global health, we bring you our five key takeaways from the series.

We cannot ignore other health issues

COVID-related lockdowns triggered widespread interruption to health care services, precipitated by policy and infrastructural failures that have compounded long-standing vulnerabilities in health care systems throughout the world. Reduced access to medication, diminished diagnostic services, and postponed procedures due to rerouting of resources to COVID-19 services risk exacerbating many conditions and missing timely diagnoses of others, notably for people living with HIV and TB. Anant Bhan, Global Health and Bioethics expert, past president of the International Association of Bioethics, said, “What you don’t want is just because a lot of resources are being put into COVID-19 that there be a rebound of other infectious diseases because we were not paying enough attention.” To avoid this, more needs to be done to ensure that health gains made in the last decades are not lost and that appropriate solutions are found to reinitiate existing services and mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

We need accurate and transparent communication

Accurate and transparent health communication is vital to ensure people know how to safely navigate the pandemic in their local contexts. The series brought to light the role of the spread of misinformation and the use of sensationalized language in creating confusion for the public, while fuelling distrust in governmental and health care responses. Experts called for reporting guidelines to ensure that the media sticks to evidence. Soumitra Pathare, director, Centre for Mental Health, Law, and Policy at India Law Society’s Law College, Pune, commented that “we need to share information as transparently as can be provided and in simple language that people understand,” including developing multilingual resources. Further, local media, such as community radio and television, should be utilized to reach the millions of people without access to mobile phones, while community educators may act as important bridges of trust between communities and health authorities.

We must prioritize mental health care

COVID-19 represents a bottleneck to already strained mental health services while also acting as a catalyst for mental health issues as people deal with isolation. COVID-related stigma seeks to exacerbate mental health issues and experts call for us to all be cognizant of the way stigma may erode peoples’ mental well-being. During this time, holistic mental health care is more essential than ever. Lakshmi Ravikanth, deputy dean, Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health, demands that “we try to broaden the entire scope of mental health responses, especially in the context of the very disadvantaged,” while Vikram Patel, Professor, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, calls for the media to advocate for quality and accessible mental health care.

We must invest in community-led initiatives

Community-led initiatives are needed to provide grassroots services that meet a community’s unique and immediate needs. This may take the form of community kitchens, such as those rolled out in Delhi and Kerala, which benefitted from decentralized institutions of public feeding, allowing more expedient community-led relief at the onset of the lockdown. With millions of people throughout the world living in informal settlements, community-led approaches to quarantine should also be explored. As Dr. Gautam Bhan, senior consultant, India Institute for Human Settlements, shared, “Community quarantine can empower actors to take care of themselves and not treat them as populations that have to be protected but actually the experts who know how to manage community affairs.” Government endorsement will further strengthen these efforts, through direct support in the form of testing and health care resources and including community members in leadership capacities.

We must implement lessons learned from past public health crises

There is much to learn from previous public health crises, such as the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Vivek Anand, CEO, Humsafar Trust, commented that “community ownership strengthened the HIV movement,” and a similar approach should be explored with COVID-19. Communities are equipped with a wealth of expertise, representing key stakeholders who must be empowered to take active roles in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting on her work with people living with HIV, Yvette Raphael, additional executive director, Advocacy for Prevention of HIV and AIDS, advocates an intersectional approach, saying, “Without those people at the table who are affected by gender, class, and race, will we not understand how intersectionality works because intersectionality is basically this one person who has to deal with a myriad of difficulties and challenges as they navigate through their lives.” The response to Ebola outbreaks in West Africa also shines a light on the importance of community empowerment through providing dignified quarantine, economic compensation, and food and social protection — approaches that should be continued for the duration of the pandemic and beyond.

In summary, it is during a global pandemic when these lessons offer us the most wisdom. Sometimes, only by looking backward can we truly move forward in a more meaningful way. Watch the full webinar series.