Health emergencies for Risk communication and community engagement: Learning lessons from COVID-19 in the Western Balkans

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, perhaps never before, that emergency preparedness and response to risk communication and community engagement (RCCE). Communicating the risks from the virus has proven vital to ensuring that people and others are able to make informed decisions and take action, which in turn can help reduce the risk of pandemic impacts on health systems and economies.

The involvement of communities in COVID-19 responses, which has led to greater acceptance and uptake of vaccines and other protective measures, has also helped build trust in government.

The success response measures to health emergencies are therefore highly dependent on effective RCCE. This is the starting point for the lessons from Europe’s first workshop on the COVID-19 response from RCCE. The event brought together 25 participants from the Western Balkans and the Republic of Moldova in Tirana, Albania.

Taking lessons from the WHO European Region, as well as individual countries, participants developed suggestions for improvement in their subregion for the effectiveness of RCCE interventions.

The workshop came at a timely moment, as a plateau in vaccination rates at the Western Balkans signals the need to prepare for effective RCCE responses to boost vaccine uptake in advance of a potential uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Key speakers from Quotes

In her address to workshop participants, Dr Mira Rakacolli, Deputy Minister of Health and Social Protection of Albania, stressed, “Communicating about risks is not always easy, especially when the science behind them is complex and evolving.” She added that, more than any previous emergency, “this pandemic has shown that the health authorities need to trust and support the communities they serve if they stop to an epidemic.”

Dr Rakacolli noted that the lessons identified and the actions proposed for the subregion will be very important: “High-quality risk communication and community engagement by health authorities are essential for their trust and support.”

Ms Geraldine McWeeney, WHO Representative to Albania, added that RCCE can benefit from mutual learning and partnerships: “This technical workshop, and others like it, pool knowledge and expertise, identify common challenges, and then lead to united action. WHO and international partners – support for better health for all our communities. ”

Dr Abebayehu Assefa Mengistu, Coordinator of the WHO Health Emergencies Balkan Hub, points out that all of our key disease control strategies, including preventive measures for case finding and contact tracing such as face masks, distancing and vaccination, depend on trust and support from communities . “Now is the time to take stock of the immense learning of COVID-19 and not let it go, but instead translate it into stronger health systems for future epidemics and emergencies.”

Ms Cristiana Salvi, WHO / Europe for the RCCE Adviser, explained, “With this meeting, we wanted to establish a role model that would bring RCCE to the next level as a core public health intervention in response to both outbreak and humanitarian emergencies. The next step in the right structures, systems and skills is when the health sector can rise. ”

Ms Salvi added, “The lessons are not only relevant to the Western Balkans region, but to everyone working in Europe and the world.”

Dr Audra Diers-Lawson, Associate Professor at the University of Kristiania University of Norway and Editor of the Journal of International Crisis and Risk Communication Research, said, “There is a growing body of social science evidence from these pandemic and previous health emergencies. Influence people to accept or reject advice on how to protect themselves. The data shows that the 3 factors are key: whether they are risky or not, they are both imminent and severe, whether they are technically competent, and whether they are trust-giving to the firm. ”

Dr Diers-Lawson continued, “Tracking and analyzing communities’ perceptions of risk and attitudes are key to designing a good communication strategy. The tricky bit is how to do this in a way that is quick and practical enough to give evidence for action by health response teams. ”

The workshop emphasized the need for intersectoral cooperation, cooperation and information sharing, and how best practices and lessons of subregional and regional exchange can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic can help strengthening countries’ RCCE capacity before, during and after public health emergencies.

The RCCE Capacity for Improvement as a result of this workshop will include actions taken by Member States of the European Region and WHO itself. Participants will also be advised of the workshop that will be used to advise their health authorities on developing country- and region-specific RCCE action plans.

The WHO is committed to further supporting countries in implementing these recommendations, which are in line with the Roadmap for Health and Well-Being in the Western Balkans (2021–2025) and the European Program of Work 2020–2025 – “ United Action for Better Health in Europe ”.

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