‘Collective action needed to exit from COVID-19 crisis’

Sunoor Verma is a senior international development specialist in strategic planning, strategic and risk communications and strategic partnerships. His work experience includes advisory work for the World Health Organisation, UNHCR, UNICEF, European Centre for Minority Issues, Cambridge University, University of Geneva and Boston University. Most recently, he consulted WHO-Geneva on developing their Risk Communication Strategy for Pandemic influenza. Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with Verma to talk about the importance of crisis communication in this time of COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts:

What should the roles of government, private sector and the general public be in terms of crisis communication?

Crisis communication is very different from regular communication. This is because the way people perceive threat, process information and react to information is very different from that of the regular scenario.

The other challenge we face in the globally connected media is that we are watching what is happening in developed countries. Suddenly our own expectations from our own governments become unrealistically high. But we have to realise our own context and manage our expectations in that context.

Governments need to see that people expect information quickly to make themselves and their close ones safe. Second, they want reliable information. Third, they want information they can turn into action for themselves so that they can take their safety into their own hands.

The people need reliable information from governments and governments need collaboration and cooperation from the people. These two elements need to be in harmony. For that to happen, there needs to be a single source of information that is trusted. In the case of this epidemic, the official government mechanism and the World Health Organisation are the only two sources from where we take information.

Then there’s the role of leaders in other sectors. Leaders do not only mean elected leaders. We are looking at leadership from all sectors — within the private sector, within the faith sector, within the community sector.

For example, if I am a shopkeeper in Kathmandu, I should not expect the government or WHO to come up with a protocol on how to maintain social distancing at the shop. Shopkeepers, or their associations, should decide how we manage social distancing at shops.

Also, videos on how to wash hands are coming from developed countries showing people washing hands for 30 seconds under running water. Where do we get running water in Nepal? Our reality is a mug of water. We need a video on how to wash our hands with a mug of water for 30 seconds. This is not something we expect the government or the WHO to come up with. There are so many creators, You Tube stars and influencers. They can make their 30-second video.

It should be clear there’s no individual exit from this. The only way we can exit from this is collective action. So this is the first time, I think, we are facing a crisis where it does not matter whether you are rich or poor; literate or illiterate; male or female; Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist.

Your survival depends on your neighbour. This is a massive equaliser. So crisis communication needs to be very quickly mastered by leaders in all spheres of lives.

How can the private sector, which has yet to come out in Nepal, contribute to addressing this crisis?

It is very important for the private sector to step up to see what the government is doing and immediately come up with offers of action and support. This is not the time to negotiate product placement or visibility or brand logo, etc. This is the time for the private sector to come together, most effectively through their associations. That way the interests are not competing within companies or brands. It’s an industry coming together.

For example, an industry of manufacturers comes together. See what the government is doing. See what’s messaging and think on their own on how they can take the message forward into areas they have influence. How they can multiply and amplify the message and make it more understandable for their constituents. They must also start thinking of scenarios in future planning. At the moment, we are all thinking about the crisis. We are not thinking after the crisis.

The moment the private sector starts helping out, the government will also probably ask the private sector for things they could do. For example, Airbus and Rolls Royce are presently not manufacturing airplanes or engines, but they are manufacturing ventilators.

Everywhere in the world, countries are following one model of lockdown to slow down the spread of novel coronavirus. How sustainable is that model, especially for a country like Nepal where people have to go out to work every day to eke out a living?

This is where multilateralism comes in. Countries, no matter how independent and how proud, this crisis reminds us we are not independent but we are interdependent. So when we are interdependent, we have to use each other’s strengths to understand who is working how and resolving the problems through which means, and pick from there.

This is where multilateralism, regionalism, regional cooperation all come in. You can see China has sent a medical team to Italy. Cuba has just sent 50 doctors to Italy as well. So we need to see our partners who can help us in what manner. And help is not just with financial aid but with ideas. We also have to realise that solutions will emerge as we move on.

The other thing that we should ask ourselves is what the other option to the model of lockdown there is. Until we have another option, let’s start with the one option that we’ve seen working everywhere. In the mean time, we come up with solutions as they emerge or as the problem evolves. But I do not think we have the luxury to wait.

Is this crisis forcing everybody, even those writing off multilateralism, to rethink about it?

The reason why multilateralism is criticised so much is it is a very soft and favourite punching bag for everyone. Any organisation in essence reflects the members it has. The United Nations is what its members are and what its members want it to be. But it is an easy punching bag because it is not easy for a country to go and punch an individual member which is richer, bigger and more powerful. But the COVID-19 crisis is reminding us about the importance of the WHO with its vast networks of collaborators of laboratories around the world, sharing information, pooling data and working 24 hours a day. If this system of multilateralism was not there you would not have the WHO. Then the question would be whose information would you trust. Of course the UN system has to reflect the modern society. But it is very big and it takes time to change. Member states have to also think about it.

In Nepal, you have the luxury of so many UN agencies that are present here. These agencies have programmes around the countries. So here you have channels and expertise spread around the country from a multilateral organisation where you are a member, where you can demand help. The UN offices are all open and all the heads of the UN agencies are in their offices.

How do you think this crisis is going to end as people paint a gloomy picture?

This whole experience is actually posing questions on how we function as a society and in terms of governance. So people and governments have a choice — are they going to make decisions on the basis of scientific evidence or not. The second choice is are we going to support the public health sector or not. You can see the delay in the response to COVID-19 in the US is being attributed by many to reduced funding of public health sector in the last few years.

In terms of the gloomy picture, the science tells us virus evolves. The whole idea of the lockdown is to delay the process of how the virus moves from one person to another. Until we manage to keep postponing this, hopefully, a number of parameters will change such as heat and humidity and hopefully infections go down. So I think the evolution would gradually become that of flu. It might re-emerge in November or December when seasonal flu come in, but most scientist feel the virus would have evolved or mutated by then. But I think in a crisis situation like this we do not have the luxury of long-term scenario planning. We need to start step by step based on the experience that is evident around us. China has managed to bring it under control, South Korea is doing quite well, and Taiwan and Singapore have done quite well.

If you look at countries that have done well, they have been very strong in two things — crisis communication and managing their supply chains. I think many of these countries have outstanding relations with Nepal. I think the way forward is to seek their expertise and seek their support. Nepal is a full-fledged member of the United Nations. There’s immense recognition of Nepal’s contribution to the peacekeeping forces. Nepal has helped the world. Now Nepal needs help, I think the world will stand to support Nepal.