USAID has awarded $4 million to the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs to help nine countries – six in Asia and three in Africa – with communication and community engagement activities to prepare for and respond to the novel coronavirus spreading across the world.
CCP’s Breakthrough ACTION project will lead the efforts alongside its partner Save the Children to help ensure that governments share appropriate messages with the public – and reduce the spread of rumors and misinformation – in order to prevent the transmission of the virus and stem panic. The virus causes a respiratory illness that has killed more than 2,700 people since it was first identified in China’s Wuhan city in Hubei province in December.
This week, the number of new cases of COVID-19 worldwide passed the 220,000 mark and it is being found in all corners of the world. Several countries are on lockdown as their health systems are overrun with patients and schools and businesses across the world have been closed. There is still a good deal that isn’t known about COVID-19, but one of the best ways to prevent transmission is regular handwashing and keeping a distance from others.
“It’s important to have very clear and precise calls to action so there is no confusion or doubt about what communities can do to prevent COVID-19 transmission,” says Alice Payne Merritt, MPH, a deputy director at CCP. “Meanwhile, the community needs to be engaged in its own preparedness. It doesn’t work if you only push messages out from the top-down. The community needs to be part and parcel of preparedness.”
The award to CCP is part of $37 million in financing from the Emergency Reserve Fund for Contagious Infectious Diseases at USAID for 25 countries affected by COVID-19 or at high risk of its spread.
CCP has experience in risk communication and community engagement around emerging diseases having done similar work in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak several years ago and in Latin America and the Caribbean during the more recent Zika outbreak.
The CCP-led work will support work in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, South Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and another African nation where CCP already has USAID-funded programs. Save the Children, a partner on the Breakthrough ACTION work, will head up the work in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar where it already works.
Merritt says it’s critical for all stakeholders to coordinate closely in developing messages to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Each country will create individual messages and calls to action based on the situation on the ground, which is specific to them.
“The public landscape can be noisy so it’s paramount that everyone is speaking from the same page,” she says. “Our role is to help with behavior change communication and harmonize those messages.”