Fighting COVID-19 in Villages

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Rajendra Aneja lists 10 techniques to defeat Covid-19 in rural areas in developing countries

Covid-19 continues to march ravenously in small towns and villages in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The infections are spreading in the rural areas.
About 65.5 percent of India’s total population of 1.35 billion, live in 6,64,369 villages, where medical facilities are scarce. Fifty percent of Nigerians and sixty-nine percent of Kenyans live in villages. The fight against Covid-19 in the villages has to be fought on a war-footing, since rural health infrastructure is weak and collecting information is tedious. It is difficult to manage the disease in the villages.

Involve Village Governing Council: In fighting Covid-19 in the villages, health authorities should seek the cooperation of the village headman and the local council. In India, the “Panchayat” is a five-man elected committee, which administers the village. The village headman and the committee carry authority in the village. Their cooperation is critical. Villagers have to be briefed sensitively about the dangers of Covid-19 and how to manage it. They should be coached on maintaining records about the infections and recoveries in the village.

Rural Covid-19 Warriors: The local governing bodies should form an auxiliary volunteer force, “Covid-19 Warriors”, comprising of young village volunteers, who will brief people home-to-home about the precautions to be taken.

The markets in the villages, attract hundreds of villagers to buy food grains, apparel, animals like goats, cows, etc. The rural “Covid-19 Warriors”, should ensure that social distancing is practised at these markets.

Rural Opinion Leaders: Opinion leaders in the villages, like the school teachers, priests, doctors, should be deployed to spread awareness in the villages. These opinion leaders have credibility. Their words are respected. Hence, governments should brief them to educate the villagers. This awareness is vital, for many afflicted persons may not even know that they have Covid-19. They may mistake it for an ordinary cold.
The key message should be that the disease is curable and patients should report any symptoms at the earliest. There should be no stigma attached to any person who gets infected. The facilities in the primary health centres in the villages need to be augmented, to conduct Covid-19 tests.

Free Masks: Doctors and scientists have under-scored that use of face masks helps to fight Covid-19. Yet, many villagers do not use masks. Some just wear it around the chin. Many people find it inconvenient to wear a mask, because it reduces the oxygen intake. Research is needed to improve the mask, so that it protects and also ensures adequate oxygen. Free distribution of masks by the governments, can help to fight Covid-19.

Role of Corporations: The corporate sector can produce masks and distribute them free in villages, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. They can even print the name of some of their brands on the masks, to derive advertising mileage.

Deploy Digital Weapons: One out of every three 4G subscribers lives in the villages, in India, according to a study by CyberMedia Research. Across the world smart phones and internet are leapfrogging in the villages. Advertising agencies should prepare special Covid-19 rural campaigns for mobile phones.

Rural propaganda/Cinema Vans: To create rapid awareness about Covid-19, health authorities should use propaganda and cinema vans. These are four-wheel vans or three-wheel autos, equipped with videos and screens, accompanied by a driver and two propagandists.
The propagandist distributes masks free to the assembled villagers. He makes announcements on the measures to avoid infections, i.e. masks, social distancing, etc. Videos show how to use the mask, maintain social distancing, importance and method of washing hands, etc. Showing, is more effective than telling.
Cinema and propaganda vans have been used effectively in countries like India, Tanzania, Kenya and Brazil, etc., to propagate the consumption of soaps, tooth paste, detergents, etc., in the villages by companies. The propaganda unit can cover six villages per day. If one hundred villagers congregate at every meeting, then a van can educate 600 villagers daily.

Vaccine Distribution: A challenge confronting countries with large rural populations, is the transportation of the vaccines after they have been finalised, in frozen or semi-frozen state, to small villages, with a population of 500 or even less. Of the total 664,369 villages in India, 35.5 percent, which is 2,36,004 villages, have a population less than 500. It will be an enormous undertaking, to transport the vaccine to tiny villages. Governments should network with companies like Nestle, Unilever, Colgate, etc., for distributing the vaccine, since these companies have a distribution reach in villages with a population of 2,500 or less. Companies which engaged in products like frozen foods and ice-creams, can study the logistics of vaccine distribution in villages. Health authorities can also deploy vans with freezers, to transport the vaccines to villages.

Deploy Boats in Rivers: Some developing countries in Asia, Latin America, etc., do not have all-weather roads to reach villages. Many villages along the Amazona river, in Peru, Colombia and Venezuela are inaccessible by road.
In such areas, health authorities should launch “Covid-19 Boats”. They will visit six villages daily, distribute masks to the villagers, organise demonstrations on social distancing and washing hands. The boat-team should distribute pictorial pamphlets to educate the villagers.
In a previous assignment with Unilever, we piloted the deployment of boats, to propagate the use of bathing soaps in Brazil and Peru. I travelled to many villages on the banks of the Amazona river in Brazil and Peru, briefing villagers. The mass marketing techniques used by FMCG companies to educate villagers, can be deployed by health authorities.

Folk songs for Awareness: It will also be useful to create songs, based on the local folk music, incorporating the fight Covid-19 messages. The song can be played, during the mask distribution and demonstrations on social distancing. These songs should be sung by lead singers in every country. Perhaps music may impact people’s behaviour, more than just fear.

The battle against Covid-19 in villages should commence right now. We should not be caught unaware, as happened when Covid-19 spread voraciously and stopped the world.
––Aneja, former Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania, is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School and the author of “Rural Marketing Across Countries”

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The fight against Covid-19 in the villages has to be fought on a war-footing, since rural health infrastructure is weak and collecting information is tedious