Blog Post

Communicating risks and meaningfully engaging communities to prevent the spread of the COVID-19

Vulnerable populations need reliable information regarding how to protect themselves from the spread of the COVID-19. In this way, information becomes a form of assistance in itself, giving people the opportunity to make better choices and protect themselves and their loved ones.  However, successful communication campaigns need to be designed in a thoughtful way. What is the socio-economic context? What are the main community, and potentially conflict, dynamics? What or who is driving social behavior? Integrating these and other questions into a COVID-19 prevention communication strategy will more likely lead to behavior change.

FAO and its partners have been working to help communities reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus by developing risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) strategies. Many FAO beneficiary communities live in rural and remote areas without access to mass media or digital networks. Hence, communication efforts must respond to the local social strata, as well as different contexts such as rural farming, fishing, and pastoralism. Strategies also have to factor in social vulnerabilities and concerns of diverse community members, as well as potential disinformation campaigns such as rumors and false news.

The term "risk communication and community engagement” refers to the processes and approaches to systematically consult, engage, and communicate with communities who are at risk or whose practices or behavior affect risk. The aim is to encourage, enable, and include stakeholders in the prevention of and response to risks by adapting communication to local political, economic, social, cultural, psychological, and other realities. In the case of COVID-19, RCCE enables authorities and communities to work together to promote healthy behavior and reduce spread of infectious diseases. Transparent and consistent messaging in local languages through preferred and trusted communication channels is key to building trust with communities. In addition, by involving community-based networks and key influencers and building the capacity of local organizations, communication can more effectively establish authority, change behaviors, and thus mitigate health risks.

FAO’s methodology for risk communication and community engagement campaigns is based on five building blocks:

Understanding the context and information needs

Marginalized people often lack access to effective surveillance systems, food security support, health services, and information, which is why understanding the local context, information needs, and culturally sensitive communication channels remains paramount. Key considerations at this stage entail community mapping, assessment exercises, and understanding enablers and barriers.

Designing an inclusive and participatory risk communication and community engagement strategy

Based on the needs, access capabilities, and preferences of rural communities, a multi-channel messaging strategy utilizing existing community communication structures and local languages is adopted. Key influencers and vulnerable sub-groups need to contribute to the design of this strategy, with a strong emphasis on the prevention of gender-based violence, protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, and disability and elderly inclusion.

Engaging Dimitra community clubs in COVID-19 prevention messages

Dimitra listener clubs are groups of people who meet on a regular basis to discuss and solve problems in their respective communities. In many rural areas in Africa south of the Sahara, these clubs successfully bring about change through a simple combination of factors: the determination and mobilization of community members, a wind-up solar-powered radio, close collaboration with community radio stations, and support from FAO. The goal of Dimitra is to build capacity, improve communication, enable participation, and highlight the role of rural women and men in food security and sustainable development.

In Senegal, Dimitra clubs have used community radios to spread critical messages regarding COVID-19 prevention to people who may not be reached by other forms of media. Implementing partners who visit these communities are provided with washing kits and individual personal protective equipment (e.g., masks and gloves) so they can demonstrate handwashing, raise awareness regarding physical distancing and other preventative measures, provide information regarding the causes and symptoms of COVID‑19, and provide communities with kits including soap, bleach, masks, etc. Campaigns through community radios, posters, and SMS campaigns are contextualized for farmers, herders, and other food value chain actors.

Developing key messages

COVID-19-related messaging must be in line with WHO general guidance and national measures for the public. In addition, FAO and its partners provide sector-specific advice for various actors along the food supply chain, including smallholder producers, livestock production and animal health, fisheries and aquaculture food systems, food businesses, consumers, and food authorities.

Safe practices for herders during transhumance

In Afghanistan, FAO is working with implementing partners and the Animal Health Directorate to develop simple communication materials for Kuchi herders regarding COVID-19-safe practices to adopt during transhumance. FAO is also working with Veterinary Field Units to ensure the anticipatory and timely provision of veterinary services.

Choosing appropriate channels and platforms

Channels used to disseminate information should be chosen based on the needs and access of the respective community. Channels can include posters, radio, TV, websites, or social media.

Integrating FAO guidance on health and nutrition

In Zimbabwe, FAO is integrating COVID-19 guidance and messaging into its existing guidelines to promote nutrition, healthy eating, and food safety at the household level. In Bangladesh, FAO is helping food vendor carts and street vendors to adhere to new safety and hygiene measures. Other countries in which FAO plans to introduce or scale up this activity include Colombia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Libya, Mozambique, the Niger, and Sierra Leone.

Effective platforms to transmit preventive messages can also include local authorities and community organizations, animal health or extension workers’ networks, Dimitra clubs and Farmer Field Schools, faith-based organizations, and educational or health centers.

Harnessing FAO’s Farmer Field Schools to empower producers in preventing the spread of COVID-19

A Farmer Field School brings together a group of farmers, livestock herders, or fisherfolk to learn how to shift toward more sustainable production practices by better understanding complex agro-ecosystems and by enhancing ecosystem services. A Farmer Field School group meets regularly during a production cycle, setting up experimentation and engaging in hands-on learning to improve skills and knowledge that will help producers adapt practices to their specific context.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 worldwide, it became essential for the FAO to review and act in line with official indications and recommendations to ensure that Farmer Field Schools and other field training activities are not contributing to the spread of the virus. Updated messaging about COVID-19 prevention strategies given to Farmer Field School facilitators and students included:

  • Follow the guidance of your government and your institution when deciding whether it is appropriate to hold Farmer Field School sessions and other agricultural training activities in your current context.
  • Wash your hands. Handwashing is not optional. Everyone (facilitator and participants) must wash their hands at least at the beginning and at the end of the Farmer Field School session.
  • Keep a distance of at least 2 m to prevent transmission.
  • Wear a mask and ask participants to wear one. If not available, they can use a cloth face cover.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth at any time.
  • Be aware! If the facilitator or a participant is not feeling well and is showing COVID-19 symptoms, he/she should NOT participate in the training session and should call a local health authority for guidance.
  • Help each other! Participants should remind each other when guidelines are not followed. If a member does not wish to follow guidelines, then they should not attend the sessions.

Engaging in partnerships

Another important step in the risk communication and community engagement process is the establishment of partnerships with WHO and other UN entities, national authorities, the global Food Security Cluster, international and national NGOS, and local authorities and communities to coordinate the design and dissemination of COVID-19 information.

Enabling rural communities to prevent COVID-19 through collaborative messaging

In Pakistan, 60 percent of the population relies on agricultural livelihoods and resides in rural areas. COVID-19 response efforts have focused on protecting the food value chain, providing agricultural inputs, and curbing the spread of infection by sharing key preventative health messages. FAO has partnered with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, and other UN agencies to develop and distribute over 80,000 materials (e.g., posters and brochures) that were translated into local languages and displayed in supermarkets, local food shops, and other public places. Health and physical distancing guidelines were shared remotely via radio broadcast, WhatsApp, and FAO Pakistan social media channels, including messages and infographics in Urdu. These efforts were complemented by online awareness sessions conducted by FAO field staff. As 40 percent of the population in Pakistan is illiterate, primarily within rural communities, FAO also harnessed its Farmer Field School network to raise further awareness through hands-on, participatory demonstrations at the field level. These demonstrations include modules on hygiene, nutrition, and safety adapted to emphasize key learning around COVID-19 prevention best practices.

By applying a strategic approach to risk communication and keeping best practices in mind when engaging with communities on the management of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases, communication strategies can spark a sense of ownership, give communities back the control over their health, and better aid in the prevention and containment of disease outbreaks.

Read the full FAO Risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) Guidance note at…