Engaging Vulnerable People and Communities in the COVID-19 Pandemic Response
Measures by the Philippine Government such as the intensified lockdown and enhanced community quarantine in response to the pandemic have resulted in severe restrictions on movement and physical distancing across the country. It changes the way humanitarians engage with communities and has had an impact on the capacities of national and local authorities as well as humanitarian agencies to put the most affected vulnerable people front and center of the response.
These include persons with disabilities, elderly, the sick or those with pre-conditions, urban and rural poor, women, children, indigenous people/minority groups, displaced community, slum dwellers, migrants/refugees and those considered living in the geographically isolated areas.
The “new normal” situation created by the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 requires a robust and coordinated Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) strategy to help address uncertainty and varying risk perceptions.
As crucial as other forms of aid, engaging vulnerable people in the Philippines involves social and behavioral change to enable people to have access to the right information through the right channels that will help them guide their actions and make the right decisions in a timely manner under pressure. People need inclusive access to the right information not only about updates on the spread of COVID-19, testing centers, and other potential secondary impacts, but also on the Government’s overall response and recovery plans, including support from humanitarian agencies.
The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Office for the Coordination of the Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and 18 members of the Community of Practice on Community Engagement (CoPCE) are providing support to the Department of Health (DOH) to improve the feedback loop with affected people by undertaking a Rapid Information, Communication and Accountability Assessment (RICAA) in Metro Manila areas and other regions across the country.
Consultations with communities using RICAA are unlocking opportunities to improve and recalibrate existing capacities of the Government and other actors to deliver appropriate humanitarian response with RCCE activities.
Results show that if vulnerable people are given the right information and are properly consulted, they can provide invaluable insights on the COVID-19 response and recovery interventions of the Government and humanitarian organizations.
Most of the 1,767 respondents to the Rapid Information, Communication and Accountability Assessments from vulnerable people in Metro Manila and other regions have access to various channels for COVID-19 information. In the National Capital Region (NCR), the most prominent preferred channels are television (national and local), Government officials, health workers, and UN agencies (WHO and UNICEF). However, TV and social media are less preferred among persons with disabilities and people in urban informal settlements. Face-to-face consultation, more interpersonal forms of interactions, and direct engagement are still ranked higher by the youth, older persons, and persons with disabilities.
“What really worries me is that this (COVID19) virus is not like a typical fever that you can easily cure by drinking paracetamol or lots of water. It's a relief that no one from my family has acquired it. The only thing that our Barangay can do is basically to keep on telling us to stay home and of course announce when will the next distribution of relief goods be. That’s why we spend most of our time watching TV for latest news and to know what’s really going on,” said Mercie Apuda, a 42-year-old convenience store owner from Pasay City during a RICAA consultation.
Across other regions, the Department of Health ranked second after television, followed by local health workers, local government officials, community leaders, and radio. Respondents from other regions stressed the importance of combined traditional media (TV and Radio), consistent advisories from authorities (national and local), and enabling community listening environment as the best channels to engage them. Both the national Government and the Barangay (village, district or ward) Council were considered as reliable avenues in taking necessary actions on the various issues raised by the urban community.
Most respondents highly recommend improving the mode of delivery of information (it should be combined risk information and engagement with the community), accessibility (inclusive and localized platforms), and consistency in addressing gaps and evolving needs (overall accountability).
“I really don’t like that I don’t have the choice but to stay home. I know it is for our safety but for how long? I don’t think that the government can sustain providing us food for many months. Right now, we’re somehow okay because of relief goods and some support coming from relatives. When can I return back to driving my tricycle? If it is uncertain, then I have no choice but to wait longer and be contented on what we receive. At this time, it’s more problematic to worry and complain,” said Raymundo Salinel, a 62-years-old tricycle driver from Sta Cruz, Laguna, during a key informant interview.
In terms of the spread of rumours, while most vulnerable people appreciate the importance of having multiple channels, having access to too much information overwhelms and confuses them. While they recognize that some of the information they receive are rumours, they do not have the channel or platform to verify them. When they ask local officials, answers are most often incomplete, leading to more frustration.
This assessment highlights that that an accessible and inclusive platform for life-saving information is in itself not a guarantee that people fully understand information and find it useful. Aside from establishing two-way processes, amplifying the information they need requires platforms and mechanisms that provide clarity, transparency, accountability, and avenues for them to make the whole consultation process more participatory.