Friday, March 24

Rural Bengal takes Covid safety to heart after 2.5 million texts from Nobel couple

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An experiment conducted among 2.5 million cellphone users in rural Bengal by a team of US-based researchers — including Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo — has indicated that direct messaging by a respected public figure can persuade more people to report Covid-related health symptoms and adopt better hygiene measures.

In a randomized control trial exercise (for which Banerjee is widely acclaimed), the Nobel laureate directly addressed users via a text message with a 2.5-minute embedded video link, in which he encouraged them to report symptoms to local public health workers, and emphasised the importance of maintaining social distancing and hygiene measures.

The results have been very encouraging. Since the messages went out, twice as many people have been reporting symptoms to community health workers. Travel beyond one’s village has fallen by 20%, and hand-washing after returning home has increased by 7%. Mask-wearing — which Banerjee did not mention in his message — has increased by 2%. Even people who did not receive the SMS benefited, as people who got it passed it on.

The findings mention that Indians, from end-March, had been told about social distancing and hygiene protocols through TV, radio, public signage, local government addresses, and via short jingles while making phone calls. Apart from these “official” sources, there’s also conversations, phone-calls, WhatsApp messages, Facebook and Twitter.

In a survey in Bengal before the randomized trial, people reported that on an average, they heard about the importance of social distancing 20.2 times; washing hands 16.9 times; and wearing masks 17.2 times in the two previous days. Yet, that hadn’t translated into much behavioural change. Despite a nationwide lockdown in India during the experiment, on average, 37% respondents in the sample group left their village at least once every two days. The survey respondents reported that typically, villagers washed their hands after returning home only 68% of the time. “This suggests that the Indian government’s public health messaging was either ignored, forgotten, misunderstood, or insufficiently disseminated within the community,” the report, a copy of which is with TOI, says. “Overall, the results show that even against a background of a high level of messaging, an additional message by a respected public figure can still have large direct and indirect effects”.

Celebrity messaging, in fact, had led to encouraging results in Indonesia on vaccination awareness.

Banerjee was assisted by Abhjit Chowdhury of the Liver Foundation, West Bengal, both of whom are on the Global Advisory Board for Covid Response Policy in Bengal. Banerjee’s and Duflo’s MIT colleague Benjamin A Olken, Harvard University researchers Marcella Alsan, Emily Breza, Arun G Chandrasekhar from Stanford University and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham from Yale School of Management were also part of the study.

“At the planning stage, we argued about fixing a ‘face’ to voice the message,” said Chowdhury, who’s credited as a co-author of the study. “We concluded that it would be useful if the person is someone held in high esteem, not usually visible or reachable on media forums, simple in expression, a natural advisor with a spontaneous call rather than a designed one. We decided Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee would be the right choice.”


Source: Times of India

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