None of us will forget the year 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world and affected every part of our lives. At Sightsavers, our staff, partners, communities and supporters have all been impacted by the disease and have had to undertake actions – or practice ‘behaviours’ – mandated by governments to prevent its spread.
In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to stop the transmission of COVID-19 is to change people’s behaviours. These changes have included reducing our movements and staying at home, keeping a safe distance from others, regularly washing our hands with soap and, in some contexts, wearing masks in public spaces.
Society-wide behaviour change is complex, and people are not always as rational or predictable as we might hope they would be! A person’s decision to practise (and keep practising) COVID-19 preventative behaviours are affected by a huge range of factors. People are influenced by their ability to understand and carry out the actions they are being asked to do, by the incentives they feel towards change, as well as by the wider society around them.
To address some of these challenges, COVID-19 communication by national governments have focused on emphasising the severity of the disease and the ease of transmission, as well as giving us ‘nudges’ to change our behaviours.
But during this pandemic, preventative behaviours are especially difficult to carry out in many of the contexts Sightsavers work in. Communities may not have easy access to water and soap to wash their hands more frequently and they may live in crowded housing with large multigenerational families. They may rely on daily income for food and are likely to hear rumours and misinformation from different sources, such as social media. For many people with disabilities, carrying out preventative behaviours could be even more difficult, and may require adapting for their own situation.
Our Equal World campaign fights for the rights of people with disabilities.More on the campaign
While COVID-19 has brought behaviour change into the spotlight, influencing people’s behaviours has always been at the heart of Sightsavers’ work with communities, schools, health centres and employers, and in the treatment and prevention of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
Social behaviour change is about understanding and influencing healthy and inclusive behaviours and providing a supportive social environment for these to flourish in. This means that we need to influence the behaviours of parents, young people, community leaders, teachers, health care workers and government officials, among many others, in order to influence whole communities. If we can encourage people to change their everyday behaviours, then we might get some way towards having healthier and more inclusive societies for men, women and children with and without disabilities.
As Sightsavers’ new behaviour change technical lead, I’m helping the organisation to understand and learn from what we’ve done so far. I’m guiding a process to think about how behaviour change can help us to deliver our ambitions to ‘Protect sight and fight for disability rights’ and where we might need to strengthen our strategies, approaches and capacity to deliver this.
We have a strong foundation to build upon, with examples of good practice in our work on NTDs, inclusive eye health, education and economic empowerment.
In Uganda, for example, our Connecting the Dots programme has placed young people with disabilities into internships with local employers. Together with parent peer networks and community dialogue sessions, this has helped to positively change community attitudes and perceptions towards people with disabilities in the workplace, reducing stigma and discrimination.
Under the UK aid-funded Ascend West and Central Africa programme, we are adapting activities in some of the countries where we work to support the COVID-19 response – for instance targeted behaviour change messaging around hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks. Within this we are also striving to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind in relief efforts. The programme as a whole aims to include people with disabilities in its design, delivery and evaluation.
And we are using a behaviour change and WASH framework to help change healthy hygiene and sanitation behaviours to support the trachoma elimination programmes in 14 countries under the Accelerate programme.
In order to ensure that social behaviour change is given greater emphasis in Sightsavers’ work, here’s what we will be focusing on over the coming year:
Lastly, we want to ensure that we embed core inclusive social behaviour change principles into our work. These include using participatory and local design to ensure that images and messages are appropriate for different community contexts, developing materials that are accessible for everyone and using evidence and learning to help us make the right decisions.
COVID-19 has reminded us of the central importance of understanding and influencing people’s behaviours. As we move into a post-pandemic world, addressing these priorities will mean that healthy and inclusive behaviours are more likely to be practised in the communities where we work, ensuring we continue to make a real difference to people’s lives across the world.
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Cathy Stephen is Sightsavers’ global technical lead for behaviour change communication.
Sightsavers’ disability inclusion adviser, Shikuku Obosi, urges journalists and government officials to use disability-friendly language when discussing COVID-19 in a new comment piece published in the media.
We should ask ourselves what we can do to mitigate the adverse effects suffered by people with disabilities, who have the right to enjoy life on an equal basis with others.
Public information around water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) have a key role to play in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Ascend West and Central Africa programme.