Social and Behavioural Change Learnings From The Ground: A Long Term Defence In This Pandemic

Bill Gates in a recent interview with Trevor Noah noted, “…the main tool(s) we have right now is behavior change, the social distancing which often means staying at home most of the time, and the testing capacity, identified of particular needs…”.

The Outbreak Communications Planning Guide by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that behavior changes can reduce the coronavirus transmissions by as much as 80%.

“We will have to learn to live with the virus, for which it is important to make critical behavioral changes and incorporate all the preventive guidelines that the health ministry has been issuing on following hand hygiene, cough etiquette and social distancing measures, as part of our daily routine. It is an everyday battle for us to keep the infection at bay,” Union health ministry joint secretary Lav Agarwal said on Friday.

As we come out of this state of lockdown and learn to live with the “new normal”, social and behavior change will become an essential part of our everyday life. In this article, we list our on-ground learning from our experiences of documenting social and behavioral change in areas of health, nutrition, and WASH while working with 14 leading organizations on social-behavior change across 13 states in India.

Our storytelling follows the underlying principle of empowering people through positive social influence and we took the same approach in the documentation of social and behavior change projects on-ground.

1. People have unrealistic optimism, it can be combated with visual, demonstrative, and interactive information dissemination.

Health Education and Awareness League (HEAL) Foundation, an Indian Health Advocacy Group on behavior change, reports from an online survey that in times of COVID-19–26.8% of people believed in destiny and 17.4% think Indians have high immunity to fight such infections. The findings suggest that 33.4% of people believe that COVID will subside soon whereas 21.5% believe these diseases keep coming and going. The results of the survey show why high levels of unrealistic optimism is the exact reason for the need for correct information and consequences.

This was similar to an issue we documented in the state of Maharashtra. Lack of visibility of germs was observed to lead people to have unrealistic optimism and therefore, they did not wash hands. Here, to push the masses to wash hands, the issue of hygiene was demonstrated through an interactive game. This registered better in the minds of people, especially children.

Unrealistic optimism is highly prevalent in situations where people are unaware of the immediacy of harmful consequences of poor hygiene practices because of which they continue with the default practices. When information dissemination happens in a manner that is visual, demonstrative and interactive at the same time, not only does it increase the retention of information, but it also affects people’s adherence to good practices.

2. People follow the herd, use social media campaigns to leverage it.

In the wake of COVID-19 and post the announcement of lockdown, people across India and globally started hoarding food, medical supplies, and hygiene-sanitation products. While herd mentality can cause panic in times of crisis due to false information, the availability of correct information when combined with the power of social and peer influence can create strong collective action.

One of our campaigns on maternal health focused on the availability of amenities in hospitals for pregnant women for the safe delivery of their child. The campaign used universal emotion of motherhood, leading to user-generated content shared by 4000 mothers in urban Delhi to talk about their challenges while giving birth. This gave the campaign a momentum to push for the “Suman Policy” by the government.

Digital media campaigns have the power to inform people and nudge them to take a higher stand for themselves, their families, and communities in times of crisis like these.

3. People are aware, but forgetful, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Samsung Research Institute-Bangalore (SRI-B) built a ‘Hand Wash’ application which reminds its users to wash their hands. This app allows users to track their daily wash trends and intuitively track their daily wash routine to build healthy habits over time. Each time the user initiates the wash sequence, the ‘Hand Wash’ app tracks the time and provides users with feedback after 25 seconds of the wash cycle. With a booming digital-adoption, we see technology as a favorable medium to implement innovative practices.

Technology can work wonders to remind people to take action, follow up, track their habits, and motivate them enough to make these triggered actions a part of their default / automatic thinking. It is this salience of technology that can be utilized when combined with a human-centered approach to encourage practices that better people’s lives.


4. Social Media for Social and Behavior Change is an inevitable new norm.

Digital-adoption has played a huge role in designing social and behavior change communication during COVID-19. While utilizing various digital electronic tools to improve social and behavior change by enhancing the user experience and improving communication channels, it has increased the ability of individuals to learn from others.

Kahaani Wale has been working on creating awareness on social media highlighting the importance of social distancing, mass masking, and mental health during COVID through content that is relatable to the audience’s popular culture taste.

Through our signature mascot #AcchiLadki, we addressed the issue of mental health of women during the lockdown, at the same time incorporation of comic book superheroes and mythological villains underlined the importance of masking.

Through these humanized messaging, we have noticed an uptick of 60% in the everyday consumption of our user. You can check out our social media content on COVID-19 here.

5. Immersive Experiences for Social and Behavior Change accelerates the process.

Among various technological advancements happening over the past decade, virtual reality (VR) is coming out of its niche and establishing itself as not only a medium for gaming but also for behavior change through storytelling and simulations. Oxford Medical Simulation (OMS) has been offering a VR medical training system in the US, Canada and the UK for free during the COVID-19 pandemic to help hospitals and medical schools bring in medical staffers for patient care.

Our work with virtual reality has been deeply insightful and results in immersive learning, higher retention, and empathy development, which we believe will work wonders in changing behaviors.

With technology and learning from past experiences, there is a possibility to overcome this crisis. We have entered a new world where all the old solutions will not work, so we have to innovate, support each other, and think of long term solutions. In our experience, social and behavioral change happens to be one of the most effective tools used on the ground to create real, sustainable impact.

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