Ovick Alam: Cultural Challenges of COVID-19 Awareness Communication in Bangladesh

As COVID-19 pandemic spreads across Bangladesh, organizations are rushing to design their crisis response — often in the form of awareness communications focused on prevention of the spread.

While WHO issued solid guidelines, Bangladesh’s local context and cultural sensitivity pose some unique challenges — as in all communication, one size does not fit all.

So when we design our campaigns for Bangladeshi audiences, we should consider certain geographical and cultural traits. Here are some local insights that communication professionals should keep in mind when designing a crisis response to COVID-19:

While WHO recommends voluntary quarantine (please check the exact term), our realities are a little different than the western world. The meaning of quarantine is not very clear as we belong to an inclusive and collective society where “one” may mean “many”. It would certainly include significant others and close friends.

Self-quarantine implies doing your own chores. We, as a population, are notoriously incapable of doing our chores for we are very used to others doing those for us.

Our existence revolves around domestic help and chauffeurs in various forms. We need to ensure they are just as sanitized as we would like us to be.

Avoiding crowded places is a tough ask for a country known for its population density. Social and religious gatherings are cultural norms.

The availability of running water comes in the way of frequent washing of hands.

Culturally we are prone to spitting in public. Also, we have never been taught to cover our mouth while coughing or sneezing.

Having very little idea of personal space also comes in the way of maintaining a safe distance between two people.

We are prone to touching money, sharing cigarettes, helmets while ride-sharing, and tube wells in villages, etc.

Rumors and misinformation spread fast on our social media — leading to some believing there’s nothing to worry about and others panicking more than they need to. Communications professionals need to acknowledge this information lag and misinformation, rather than blame it.

Most of us have had our 2020 communication plan in place for a while. However, we strongly suggest everyone re-evaluate and re-design your plans to align with the current situation.

Finally, while the current communications may involve primarily symptoms and prevention of Coronavirus, we also need to think one step ahead and incorporate the communications required for the recovery phase from Coronavirus.

And just to keep things in perspective, we also are eternal fatalists and often say, “কিছু হবেনা (nothing will happen)” to most things that are harmful to us. On that note, please stay safe, take all the preventive measures to keep your friends and family safe too.

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Here is a folder containing verified, non-branded awareness content in Bangla, prepared in accordance with WHO guidelines, that any brand, group or individual may download and share with their respective communities.

As this health crisis continues to unfold, we envision this output as very much a work in progress and welcome any contribution as we collectively build our knowledge base (we are working towards a chatbot, sharing the link soon here).

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