The situation in Mewat

There was an urgent intervention required in Mewat (now Nuh), the most backward district of India. SMART has been working in Nuh for over 20 years. Mewat (now Nuh) in Haryana, is the most backward district in the country. Until March 31, 2020, this district did not report a single case of COVID-19. However, the next two weeks saw an explosion of cases. Within a month, 68 cases were reported. The non-existent medical infrastructure of Nuh, coupled with a practice of low sanitation and hygiene as well as a complete lack of awareness regarding the pandemic made the situation critical and the district was declared a COVID hotspot in April. This created panic and fear within the community. Cases of stigma and discrimination against COVID patients and their family members also surfaced. 

Mewat is also the birthplace of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation that was widely blamed for the spread of COVID-19 during March. As members of the organisation started returning to Mewat after the event that was held in New Delhi, there was an urgent need to ensure there is no environment of hostility for those coming back, as well as to equip the people with the necessary safety precautions to be followed in order to not get infected.

Mewat has one of the lowest media penetration in the country, with barely 10% homes owning television sets. However, it has a high mobile phone penetration, which also doubles up as a radio listening tool. Radio Mewat, a community radio station operating in the district for almost a decade, disseminates content with a local perspective in the local dialect. It is run by members of the community and has for long been serving as a bridge between the administration and the community, thereby earning the latter’s trust. This made Radio Mewat the ideal medium to create awareness regarding COVID-19.

Information & Awareness campaign by Radio Mewat

Radio Mewat has been running a focused awareness, outreach and behavioral change campaign called ‘Corona se jung, Radio Mewat ke sung’ since April. Broadcast in Mewati (the local dialect) and Hindi, the campaign has incorporated the following:

  •       Symptoms and prevention
  •       De-escalation measures
  •       Daily updates
  •       Social cohesion and solidarity
  •       Busting myths and addressing misinformation
  •       Messages by district authorities

During its 12-hour daily broadcast time, Radio Mewat has also included content to target specific segments of its audience (women, children, farmers, migrant workers, vulnerable groups and so on). The content also moved beyond just the health aspect and has also encompassed other impacts of the pandemic, for example, the economic impact on various sectors, its effect on people’s mental health and a spike in domestic violence cases against women.

We have also captured the voice of the frontline health workers (ASHA and ANM workers), including their experiences and struggles during this period and their appeals to the people of the district which can ensure a safe environment in the district.

Mask-making and distribution in Mewat

As a result of the lockdown imposed by the government in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19, many in Mewat were rendered jobless and confined to their homes. The condition of women especially became a matter of concern as violence against women is extremely common in the region. With reports of increased domestic violence coming in from many parts of the country, we felt the need to remain engaged with our women listener groups during this time. SMART, through its community radio station Radio Mewat, decided to engage its women groups spread across 30 panchayats for mask-making.

The cloth and stitching material were sourced and acquired by the team of Radio Mewat during the lockdown by taking permission from the district authorities to get the go-downs opened. Our team member Sunita went to different villages and trained the women who assembled in small groups on how to stitch the masks. During these interactions, she also spoke to them about domestic violence and encouraged the women to come forward and share their stories or incidents, especially if they are facing violence during the lockdown. Each woman was promised Rs 6 per mask as compensation. The women were initially asked to make 2-3 samples which would be examined by Sunita. The women made the masks according to the feedback they received.

The exercise was started in mid-April with support from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI) as well as some voluntary contributions through friends of SMART. So far, 284 women across 28 villages of Nuh have made around 52,000 masks. Of these, around 50,000 have been distributed free-of-cost to the people of Mewat through the respective Sarpanches. The free distribution of masks has been carried out in order to inculcate a habit of mask-wearing within the community and protect themselves.


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Providing COVID content to Community Radio Stations across India

As the world tries to battle a pandemic, messaging is a key tool towards controlling the spread of COVID-19. Since March 22, a number of CR stations took upon themselves the job of creating awareness among the communities they serve. After close to 40 days they all encountered a problem: lack of content. A fatigue had set in. District administration did not have much more to say, local doctors were running out of ideas, experts had worn-out themselves.

While symptoms of the disease and precautions against COVID-19 were being emphasised on through various media outlets, most of the CR stations were experiencing exhaustion in creating and maintaining a constant stream of credible messaging, as well as engaging the audience with innovative content. They are also confined by the draconian laws of misinformation and thus prefer to be conservative, repetitive and non-controversial. This further gave rise to other issues: they were not sure on how to handle misinformation, that too with a lot of it circulating around.

With a humble grant from UNESCO, SMART developed exclusive content and brief bulletins for all community radio stations across the country. The content was shared in 7 languages with all the 295 operating stations. The languages were chosen based on states that were witnessing a surge of COVID-19 cases and had turned into hotspots. Operating stations were brought on board to translate the content. This served two purposes:

  1.       The content was translated into spoken and simple language
  2.       They became stakeholders in the content development

The content moved beyond just the health aspect and has also encompassed other facets of the pandemic, for example, the economic impact on various sectors, its effect on people’s mental health and a spike in domestic violence cases against women. Content targeting specific segments of audience (women, children, farmers, migrant workers and so on) has also been developed and shared. We have also been translating the resource material in 7 languages, based on the list of COVID-19 hotspots issued by the Government of India and circulating them in the respective states. For this we are taking help of community radio stations from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

As part of our conversations on COVID, we also conducted a series of interviews with experts and heads of organisations on the impact of COVID-19. These include:

  •       Dr VK Paul, Niti Aayog
  •       Dr Srinath Reddy, President PHFI
  •       Dr Santosh Mehrotra, a leading Economist and Head of Institute of Labour Studies, JNU
  •       Ms Nishtha Satyam, Acting Head, UN Women
  •       Mr Surajit Roy, Director, Apprenticeship, NSDC
  •       Ms Kanta Singh, Country Programme Manager UN WOMEN
  •       Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, the India Representative of UNICEF

A total of 60 scripts in Hindi, English, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Assamese and Gujarati have been shared with the stations so far.