Nida, a polio community worker in Lahore, is glued to her mobile phone. But this is not a leisurely conversation with a friend. She is messaging a mother in her neighbourhood who is worried about COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, polio programme workers across the country have pivoted to use messaging applications, especially WhatsApp, to disseminate COVID-19 prevention and care messages to communities. This is one aspect of the extensive support being offered by the Pakistan polio programme to the COVID-19 response.
Over the last few months, the polio programme has produced a suite of videos, digital pamphlets and posters on COVID-19 prevention and care in formats that can be easily shared and viewed via messaging platforms.
“This is an example of resilience – how the polio team has adapted to the change and found an effective way to support the people across the country during the COVID-19 crisis,” said UNICEF’s Dennis Chimenya, the Communication Task Team lead of the Pakistan Polio Programme. “Standing with the community during these challenging times will certainly contribute to building further trust in polio frontline workers.”
Engaging religious and community influencers
Engaging religious leaders and local influencers is a critical part of effective community outreach. Now, many are receiving messages and calls from polio community workers seeking their support for the COVID-19 response.
Qari Zafar, a religious cleric at a mosque in Lahore, was a staunch opponent of restrictions to religious gatherings.
“Initially, I was totally against the idea of asking people to pray at home. I felt that people need to pray together at the mosque during this difficult time and support each other,” said Zafar.
“Then I started receiving messages and posters from [polio community workers] Nida and Uzma about how the coronavirus spreads. Our chats helped me understand the seriousness of the situation.”
“I have started making announcements through the mosque loudspeakers, asking people to offer their prayers at home, even during Ramadan. I also regularly message my followers, reminding them about healthy practices.”
The ‘new normal’ for community outreach work
“Messaging platforms have become the ‘new normal’ to carry out community outreach activities,” said Muhammad Asif, a polio frontline worker in Quetta, Balochistan province.
At the north west frontier region of Pakistan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the polio communication teams have created 63 group chats, tailored for different audiences, to amplify COVID-19 preventive messages.
In Punjab, similar groups have helped the programme reach over 110,000 people with digital posters and leaflets. Messaging applications are also helping the programme communicate with religious pilgrims and other mobile populations, whose travel patterns put them at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
In Sindh, WhatsApp has helped the programme reach over 200,000 people at risk, 4,000 religious leaders, 3,000 influencers and more than 80 journalists with awareness materials and guidelines for ethical reporting.
“The potential of using such platforms under the present circumstances is huge. Yes, our movement is limited but we have to find a way to do our job and to ensure that the correct messages reach the right audience on time,” said Fatima Fraz, Communication for Development Specialist for the polio programme in Sindh.
“Just imagine, there are 14,000 polio frontline staff in Karachi. If each staff member sends out the messages and then follows up by phone with just 20 people, that’s 280,000 people reached right then and there.”
WHO has launched a dedicated messaging service in languages including Arabic, English, French, Hindi, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Urdu and Somali to keep people safe from coronavirus.