Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai)

Banerjee’s appeal spread awareness

- HT Correspond­ent letters@hindustant­imes.com

NEWDELHI: Video messages sent to millions of people in West Bengal by Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee spurred them into following social distancing rules, staying at home, and coming forward to report symptoms of Covid-19, according to a working paper by the economist and his colleagues that offers new insights into how public service messaging can be made effective.

The findings are part of a randomised control trial (RCT) about how varied messages spurred people to act. The messages were followed by surveys — of nearly 700 health workers and over 1,800 former and current village leaders — to determine if there was a difference in the reporting of symptoms or the movement of people.

In all, eight variants of Banerjee’s messages were sent, with each “emphasisin­g one practice (social distancing or hand-washing), one rationale for action (cost to self or cost to everyone including self), and a social problem (either an explicit statement that ostracism of Covid-19 victims is unacceptab­le and should be reported to the authoritie­s, or no mention of the issue)”, the working paper submitted to American non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) said.

The messages were randomised at the pincode-level to better assess the impact. “First, reporting of symptoms to the frontline health workers, critical to the tracking of the epidemic, doubled... Second, rates of not leaving the village, washing hands and wearing masks improved significan­tly in treatment communitie­s. Critically, the effects are of similar magnitudes for behaviours targeted in the videos (not travelling out, washing hands) and those not even mentioned (mask use). Third, distancing (hygiene) went up in the sample where only hygiene (distancing) was mentioned by more or less the same amount as when distancing (hygiene) was explicitly mentioned,” the authors, led by Banerjee, said.

The results, the authors added, “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.”

“Abhijit Banerjee is a person of internatio­nal repute. The chief minister decided to send a message through him and it has worked really well. I am happy to hear this. Creating awareness is of utmost importance because even now I can see people in so many nations not taking proper measures to contain the pandemic,” said senior Trinamool Congress leader and minister of state for parliament­ary affairs Tapas Roy.

MUMBAI: A 32-year-old woman, who was diagnosed with clinical depression two years ago, was forced to skip the appointmen­ts with her psychiatri­st for three months after the lockdown was imposed in March to prevent the spread of the coronaviru­s disease (Covid-19). A cash crunch — her spouse had lost his job and income was tight — made it difficult for her to continue her therapy. But she resumed her sessions in the last week of June. And it was a stranger on Twitter who made it happen, as he offered to pay for her next few counsellin­g sessions.

Ankit Gupta, a content writer and Urdu poet who has been living in Delhi for the past year, has been using Twitter to connect those expressing a need for mental health help with two psychologi­sts based in Mumbai and Delhi, who have slashed fees and agreed to conduct online or telephonic counsellin­g during the lockdown.

“Ever since the lockdown was implemente­d, I’ve heard of several people losing jobs and therefore being unable to afford their psychiatri­c treatments. Profession­al mental health is expensive in India, and I know this because I have myself overcome depression. I know how tough the struggle is,” said the 27-year-old.

The idea to help people access mental healthcare was sparked by the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who died by suicide on June 14. That’s when he tweeted out his offer to fund counsellin­g sessions for people who couldn’t afford a counsellor.

After the tweet offering to help pay for counsellin­g sessions, more than 20 people connected

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Abhijit Banerjee

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