By Glenn Laverack, PhD
There is not a clear top-down solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. A vaccine may not be available for another 12 months, national lock-downs threaten to damage economies and time has been lost through misjudged interventions. A resurgence of the virus coincides with winter in the northern hemisphere, and in many countries, there is still insufficient capacity for testing and tracing. Living with COVID-19 depends, more than ever, on social responsibility to comply with preventive measures, to be vigilant and to help to protect the vulnerable.
Internationally, the focus is beginning to shift towards strengthening the role of communities, guided by the evidence from the social and behavioural sciences and experiences from other disease outbreaks. An understanding of the socio-cultural context is essential to maintain low community transmission by influencing human behaviour, to engage with hard-to-reach groups and to target people and settings that present a high risk of spreading the virus. Mass gatherings such as raves and protests, including anti vax, for example, have occurred around the world without the authorities being able to properly engage with people to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Living with COVID-19 will depend on tailored interventions to reach those who cannot or will not maintain low community transmission.
Community-based organisations, leaders and local champions have worked tirelessly to deliver a range of activities to help people to empower themselves to protect against COVID-19. Volunteerism has also been a common feature in many countries to help to shield and support the vulnerable and to protect others in the community. Community-based organisations are able to utilise a broad network of contacts, an essential aspect of any outbreak response, that can ´fast-track´ building trust and create a bridge for collaboration. A recognition of, and stronger funding streams for, community-based organisations, must quickly become a core part of the public health response to the pandemic.
Harnessing the potential of communities will depend on a government recognition of their importance and on stronger funding streams.
Harnessing the potential of communities can be enhanced by building trust including through the use of reliable sources of evidence-based information and by providing opportunities for people to engage in a dialogue about the risks of infection. ´Online COVID coaching´, for example, can be used to build a relationship to raise awareness about the barriers to maintain personal protection. A personal plan provides a new direction to modify behaviour and to visualize the potential for change with realistic goals and by tracking progress.
Living with COVID-19 will depend on harnessing the potential of individuals, families and communities.
The pandemic will continue to have a devastating impact on the health of the population and on national economies unless we do everything we can and use every opportunity and every tool to control the spread of the virus. It is important for every government to understand that it is not too late to harness the potential of individuals, families and communities to become a key part of the ongoing response.
Knowing what we do know, that working with communities is critical to the success of a disease outbreak response, the question is: Why has the potential of communities not been a key feature of the response during the COVID-19 pandemic? We have not learned from the lessons and earlier mistakes made during previous disease outbreaks and did not engage with communities at the beginning of the present pandemic. There is no excuse not to actively involve people, however, harnessing the potential of communities has not been widely embraced by governments. Adopting a paternalistic, top-down approach to addressing the outbreak at a national level may be a decision that many live to regret as the virus continues to spread within countries and around the world.
In summary, we can begin to harness the potential of individuals, families and communities to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 by:
- Establishing an accurate, evidence-based source of communication such as online, social and the mass media about the risks and preventive measures.
- Creating the opportunity for people to engage in a dialogue about the risks and preventive measures such as with a peer educator, a COVID coach, local champion or leader or through a friend or family member.
- Providing a recognition of the value of the work of community-based organisations, local leaders and champions and volunteers.
- Providing stronger funding streams to community-based organisations and volunteerism to support a broad range of local supportive and preventive activities.