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Instant communications: A tool for disease prevention

Instant communications: A tool for disease prevention

By Firdaus Kharas

The development industry has been slow to grasp the fact that the world is at a new – and more connected – stage in history.

This age is characterised by:

  •  The possibility of reaching most people on the planet with two-way communications;
  • The increased ability to understand and overcome the barriers to communications that separate human beings, like culture, language and religion;
  • The diminishing control of the state and, relatedly, the empowerment of non-state actors and ordinary people.

These changes are creating new challenges and opportunities, and a greater need for us to better understand the barriers to and impacts of instant communications.

The combination of computers, mobile phones, tablets, television and radio has ensured that most people on this planet now have some means of direct access to information. Few people are unreachable if they want to be reached and their government allows it.

The International Telecommunications Union estimates there are nearly as many mobile phone subscriptions in the world as there are people – seven billion – with 69 percent of the population of Africa and 89 percent in Asia and the Pacific having mobile phones. Nearly three billion people, two thirds of whom come from developing countries, are online.

What development experts have not yet fully grasped is how this can directly and immediately improve people’s lives. One of the best examples is the ongoing Ebola crisis, which the international community was excruciatingly slow to respond to. When it did, it spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting doctors and nurses, both local and international, to treat those infected, while largely ignoring how to prevent people from getting infected in the first place.

Slowly, and too late for some, creative local people started making music and spraying graffiti in a desperate attempt to spread the vital information people needed. International organisations and local governments largely only created pamphlets and posters, despite large numbers of those contracting Ebola not being able to read or write.

What was needed, as Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) raised the alarm in March 2014, was swift creation of visual media to saturate Ebola-affected countries with information on how the virus is spread and how to avoid infection. Modern technology could have been used much more effectively as a means of prevention, long before over 20,000 people became infected with Ebola.

As Claudia Evers, MSF’s Ebola emergency coordinator in Guinea, said, “In the first nine months, if people had been given proper messages, all this could have been prevented.”

Media could have been disseminated in a variety of ways, including by mobile phones, television and radio; playing on Jumbotrons in stadiums and closed-circuit TV systems in hospitals; and via NGO personnel’s laptops, among other means. Such sustained, systematic use of repetitive messaging could have swiftly reached millions of West Africans.

In response to the lack of visual media available by August 2014, my South African colleague Brent Quinn and I created a short animated special called Ebola: A Poem For The Living. The film, in which a young Ebola patient advises his family on how to avoid becoming infected themselves and pleads with them to listen, confronts myths, superstitions and fear, stressing the importance of isolation of the person infected.

Liberia started playing the film on national television, many radio stations put it on air, and multiple churches and grassroots organisations showed it in their communities. A Nigerian foundation posted it on their Facebook page, where it swiftly drew over 354,000 views and nearly 2,700 “likes” and was shared more than 10,000 times. Interestingly, in Guinea, the most common way of distributing the video has been transferring it over Bluetooth between cell phones.

We initially only created English and French versions. But as the video spread, more and more organisations requested local-language versions. Volunteers offered to create voiceovers in new languages so their communities could receive the video’s message. Families brought their children to the recordings under very difficult circumstances during the height of the crisis, and radio stations opened their professional recording studios for free. West Africans’ extensive engagement with Ebola: A Poem for the Living suggests there was a thirst for a well-made video with a clear message on how to prevent Ebola. Yet even today, in some languages, this video is apparently the only visual media available on Ebola.

Mass communications need to become a more central component in development programming, especially in preventative medicine. It is not enough to plan for sending doctors to the next Ebola crisis after it breaks out. We need to better use modern communications to spread information about preventative measures, to ensure that fewer or no doctors are ultimately needed.

Firdaus Kharas is a Peabody Award-winning creator of media for social change and the Director of Chocolate Moose Media. You can follow him on Twitter. At this writing, 16 versions of Ebola: A Poem for the Living can be viewed and downloaded here.

Featured image is a still from Ebola: A Poem for the Living, courtesy of Chocolate Moose Media.

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5 thoughts on “Instant communications: A tool for disease prevention

  1. The thing I think is compelling about this video is the way it’s told from the perspective of the patient, asking his family to protect themselves. I wonder if public health campaigns could be more effective by taking an approach like this, rather than just instructing people on how to change their behavior.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      My approach is never to “instruct” or “educate” the viewer but to get the viewer to internalize the message. My approach, therefore, is non-authoritarian and non-threatening.

      Change can never be imposed from the outside. It must come from within a person.

      If you think of the various campaigns you see you might appreciate the difference in my work. For example, on domestic violence, most campaigns show a battered women. In my opinion, that does very little to induce change: firstly, it further stigmatizes the woman; secondly, it does not directly address the person needing to change, the abuser; thirdly, it does not create a message that can be internalized since most people are repulsed by, and not attracted to, an image of a bettered woman.

      My approach uses humor to bring the viewer to the serious point being made at the end of each spot. Please see

      So, we totally agree.

  2. Great post. Totally agree with the authors thoughts here. Nice animation too.

    1. Thank you for your kind words

  3. […] Why does the aid-sector suck at communicating with affected people? […]

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