Leaders must play part in Covid-19 sensitisation

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 12:00 |
Health CS Mutahi Kagwe Photo/PD/SAMUEL KARIUKI

Tobias Belle 

When Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe addressed the nation the previous Sunday before the ban on religious gatherings, he was visibly frustrated.

Kenyans had thronged churches in total disregard of State directive to avoid gatherings. 

And as he appealed to Kenyans on that very subject, I counted not less than 20 people, crowded near a TV set at a shop in Juja town.

Similar crowds, undeterred by the warnings, have been spotted in malls and shops across the country. 

Despite the global trends and the horror pictures we continue to see  from countries worst hit by coronavirus such as Italy, most Kenyans still disregard the government advisory, treating it like a far-fetched myth. 

When I recently spoke to my mum over the phone, explaining to her why I can’t travel upcountry, she expressed her concerns that most people in the village are not heeding government directives. In the rural areas, most people dismiss coronavirus as an “urban problem”. 

I believe the missing link in the fight against this pandemic is effective persuasive communication.

At times of crises such as this, proper crisis communication and management is crucial and the government and other stakeholder have done a marvelous job sensitising the public.

However, there is a lapse in how to bring the effects of the Covid-19 to the mwananchi level. 

When persuading people in public health campaigns, just being armed with the facts and statistics is not good enough.

Persuasion is not deemed successful until attitudes and behaviour are changed in favour of the persuasive message. For this to happen, the communication has to be targeted, with a particular audience in mind.

The message has to be tailor-made for them specifically, and the person delivering this message has to be someone the recipients will believe, even if the message goes against their existing beliefs.

This is where we have largely gone wrong, failing to recognise that different people have pre-existing attitudes, belief systems and strong viewpoints that can easily come in the way of a public campaign.

The other largely ignored variable is the current context under which all this is happening, which is widespread public distrust of the government. . 

It should have been natural for our elected leaders to take this up. But most of them are silent.

While it is exemplary for our leaders to work from home, most of them have quarantined even their voices, which are needed now more than ever. 

Some of these leaders have constituents that believe in whatever they tell them. So why are they not speaking up and telling their supporters to do the right thing?

They, therefore, have a far higher success rate in shaping public opinion and influencing behaviour than some experts armed with just facts and figures

Our opinion leaders must now consider it their moral obligation to empower people in their communities with credible information on this pandemic, with an aim of achieving behaviour change.

If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an eternity for a country with low quality healthcare dealing with the deadly coronavirus.

—The writer is a Corporate Communications Officer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. [email protected]

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