The truth is, viruses like COVID-19 don’t care about where you live, your gender, or your socio-economic status. But where you live, your gender, and your socio-economic status certainly impact your risk for contracting this virus. Self-isolation or quarantine is almost impossible when your entire family lives in one room. Women around the world collect water from communal locations for the survival of their families. Social distancing is extremely difficult when you rely on public latrines and baths. Washing your hands or caring for others becomes challenging without indoor plumbing or soap. And these are logistical realities. We all know that cultural and economic realities also greatly hinder or enhance people’s ability to stay safe during this global pandemic.
Population Media Center (PMC) creates stories that shift attitudes and behaviors around gender equality, reproductive health, and women and girls’ empowerment, and now we’re embedding COVID-19 information into those stories as well. We know that we must join the fight against this rampaging global pandemic, and we know that the populations we reach day in and day out with our entertaining programs are the same people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Unfortunately, this virus has much of the globe still to rampage.
“PMC staff members globally have responded to this crisis with an outpouring of energy as we utilize PMC’s communication expertise to help the most vulnerable populations avoid the worst of what this pandemic threatens to inflict,” says Bill Ryerson, PMC’s President and Founder.
Specific Ways PMC Can Make a Difference
PMC’s pre-existing network of broadcast partners and on-air entertainment provide a solid, existing base upon which accurate information and messaging about COVID-19 can be delivered to key audiences. In collaboration with local health ministries and other trusted information sources like the World Health Organization and UNCIEF, PMC is creating new content with prevention messaging in local languages.
“PSAs and jingles are helpful with simplistic messaging and behavior change,” says Kriss Barker, PMC’s Vice President of International Programs, “and in some places those will help. What PMC brings to the table that goes beyond direct messaging is multi-fold. First, we already have engaged audiences of particularly vulnerable populations, a ready-built audience. Second, our shows and characters are a trusted voice. Our audiences know and love the characters they tune in for — they have emotional bonds through which to view actions or advice given by these characters. Third, our shows are long-running, so we can reach these audiences over the course of days, weeks, and months with repetitive messages and evolving messages since we know the situation will continue to evolve.”
Samples of PMC’s Global Response: Burundi, Haiti, and Rwanda
PMC’s field offices around the world have pivoted in the past weeks to adjust to the realities in their location. Although the messages about washing your hands and social distancing are common, other challenges and contexts can be quite different.
In Burundi, for instance, the PMC team is drawing on the unfortunate reality that dangerous transmission of viruses is not new. Although not on the scale of COVID-19, the Ebola outbreak from 2014–2016 claimed more than 11,000 lives as it traveled primarily through West and Central Africa. This epidemic still lives vividly in the minds of many and haunts public health officials because of the clear negative impacts of the poor surveillance and public health infrastructure in many developing countries — the places PMC works. In Burundi, there is one doctor and 16 hospital beds for every 20,000 people. (In comparison, the U.S. has almost 52 doctors and 58 hospital beds for every 20,000 people.)
Translated from Burundi’s national language, Kirundi, part of the epilogue following episode 59 of PMC’s show Agashi 3 (“Hey! Look Again!”) says “Everyone, be careful to wash with clean water and soap, or water containing antimicrobials. This is an important preventive measure against diseases caused by poor hygiene, including Ebola and Coronavirus.”
In Haiti, it’s important to understand that any response to a global pandemic is further challenged by months of unrest. National security declined across Haiti during the fall of 2019 and the situation only got worse in the early weeks of 2020. People have been tuning into the Zoukoutap (“To Limp”) series since its debut in 2013, and Zoukoutap 3, which began broadcasting in November of 2018, has been a stable element of people’s lives in unstable times — a source for information and an entertaining reprieve from the national tension. As one might imagine, a previously tense situation only gets more stressful with the introduction of health fears and dire needs imposed upon a limited health care infrastructure.
PMC’s Haitian team is adding a 12-episode series in addition to its standard lineup on radio stations and social media, along with fun yet helpful things like a 20-second version of the theme song teaching the length of proper handwashing that can be downloaded as a ringtone. The additional mini-series will allow the audience to follow familiar characters navigating a new reality, beginning with an invitation to a party that directly contradicts public health warnings against social gatherings. In addition to common prevention techniques, the series will also address myths and discrimination around COVID-19.
As we know, many issues PMC works on in Haiti are expected to be exacerbated during stressful times, such as increased violence against child slaves (Restaveks) and people’s fears about being sick leading to violence against those who report illness. It’s through nuanced and on-going storytelling that these irrational and emotional aspects can be exposed and understood, creating a reaction across large audiences that can change social norms. Shows like Zoukoutap create a movement of people who realize that it’s not in anyone’s interest to allow these behaviors, mobilizing broad-based change.
“We, of course, make the episodes and materials entertaining so we draw people back episode after episode, but each episode clearly promotes something that has to be taken very seriously,” says Christina Guérin, PMC-Haiti’s Resident Representative. “This is the magic of storytelling. People are diverse and textured and so these stories reflect our good, our bad, our light-hearted, and the most serious.”
In Rwanda, digital outreach has been a major piece of PMC’s COVID-19 education and prevention efforts. PMC’s affiliate organization Umurage Communication for Development (UmC) has a strong social media following. To engage these fans, UmC has developed a social media campaign in English and Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s national language) around public health guidelines for proper hygiene and public interaction.
Workplace recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic, shared on Facebook by Umurage Communication for Development.
PMC-Rwanda’s Resident Representative, Jean Bosco Kwizera, can be seen on video demonstrating proper handwashing techniques as part of the World Health Organization’s #SafeHands Challenge. In Kinyarwanda, he explains that proper hand hygiene can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Adapting How the Work Gets Done, But Continuing the Important Work
These are only a few examples of PMC adjusting work around the world to directly address needed attitude and behavior changes to impact COVID-19. We know that basic testing, reporting, and other infrastructural issues, as well as political uncertainty, are variously at play in the low numbers of confirmed cases in Burundi, Haiti, and Rwanda (3, 21, and 104 respectively), which makes it even more imperative that crucial messages be delivered to help people keep themselves safe. And PMC field offices that are still in production are drastically changing the ways in which materials are written, recorded, and produced to protect everyone.
“The safety of our PMC community and our wider communities is paramount,” says Barker. “As we make these recommendations to our audiences, we’re practicing them in our own lives as well.”
Though times are challenging, the PMC global team is dedicated to leveraging expertise and pre-existing platforms to drive dramatic change for some of the most vulnerable populations. We have been doing this for more than 20 years as we have worked to improve the lives of those most impacted by gender inequality, population growth, and environmental degradation. PMC is working closely with a number of our institutional funders and multi-lateral agencies to understand global priorities and how we can deliver information in powerful ways that help minimize the awful toll COVID-19 is having around the globe.
“Under these extremely stressful conditions, PMC staff around the world are doing heroic work, reaching millions of people who trust and depend upon PMC for accurate information,” says Ryerson. “I’m proud to work with this team. We will get through this pandemic together.” You can see PMC’s President and Founder’s message and information about PMC’s response to Covid-19 here.
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