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Communicating risk and engaging vulnerable communities in the time of the coronavirus

A reference tool for communicators and organisers to better engage vulnerable communities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Publication title: COVID-19: How to include marginalised and vulnerable people in risk communication and community engagement

Author(s): World Health Organisation (WHO)

Publication date: 19 March 2020


The guide recognises how crises, like the coronavirus outbreak, magnify the risk experienced by vulnerable groups such as women, children, the eldery, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees. It provides a short look at why some groups’ vulnerability is exacerbated during times of crisis. The guide includes various actions communicators and organisers can take to include people from these groups along with case studies and lessons learned from grassroot responders in previous crises like the Ebola crisis. The value of applying a gender lens in understanding and responding to crises like the coronavirus pandemic is emphasised throughout. 

Key take-aways:

Targeted analyses of and strategies for specific communities (women): 

  • Possible risk: Women may be excluded from decision-making structures. Gender roles and norms may influence the access women have to health services, including reproductive health services during a crisis. Women still account for large parts of the health workforce and informal sector — both of which have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. The response to the pandemic increases the risk of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual exploitation. Women largely remain primary caregivers. 
  • Actions: Healthcare facilities and workers should be culturally and gender sensitive. Specific strategies should be designed for home-based caregivers and women at risk of GBV who can’t avoid close contact during quarantine. 

General strategies for engagement: 

  • National risk communication and community engagement strategies should be informed by disaggregated data that accounts for and includes sex, age, disability and pregnancy status. A gender analysis should be applied to these communication and engagement plans.
  • Teams representing and serving communities should be representative of those communities. Women’s participation should be supported at all levels.
  • Community groups already active in the community should be included in communication and engagement plans. 
  • How we communicate information matters. Vulnerable and marginalised communities shouldn’t be labeled to avoid the inadvertent stigmatisation of these groups. Only recent and reliable evidence-based information should be repeated and amplified to counter myths and misinformation. Information should be communicated as plainly as possible avoiding, where possible, clinical and technical language. Communication mediums should be varied, including both online and offline channels, ensuring essential messaging reaches people at the community level. 

You can find and download the guidelines here.

[Please note: Information on the new coronavirus is rapidly changing. Please refer to the WHO for more resources on the new coronavirus. Visit www.sacoronavirus.co.za for updates on South Africa’s coronavirus response.]

Gopolang Makou was the impact and engagement officer at Bhekisisa.