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

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, perhaps like never before, the importance of risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) for emergency preparedness and response. Virus-related risk communication has proven essential in ensuring that people can make informed decisions and take action to protect themselves and others, and has thus helped reduce the impact of the pandemic on health systems. health and savings.

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 authorities.

The success of health emergency response measures is therefore highly dependent on an effective RCCE. This was the starting point for the first European workshop on RCCE lessons learned from the COVID-19 response. The event brought together 25 participants from the Western Balkans and the Republic of Moldova in Tirana, Albania.

Taking stock of lessons learned in the WHO European Region as well as in individual countries, participants made suggestions for their subregion to improve the effectiveness of RCCE interventions in the future.

The workshop came at a good time, as a plateau in vaccination rates in the Western Balkans signals the need to prepare effective RCCE responses now to boost vaccination ahead of a likely spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall.

Quotes from key speakers

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

Dr Rakacolli noted that the lessons identified and actions proposed for the sub-region will be very important: “High-quality risk communication and community engagement of health authorities are key to gaining their trust and support.

Ms Geraldine McWeeney, WHO Representative in Albania, added that the mutual learning and partnership gained through the RCCE can benefit the whole Region: “This technical workshop, and others like it, pool knowledge and expertise, identify common challenges, then lead to united action with the support of WHO and international partners, resulting in better health for all our communities.

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

Ms Cristiana Salvi, RCCE Advisor for WHO/Europe, explained: “With this meeting, we wanted to establish a model that takes RCCE to the next level as a core public health intervention in the response to epidemics and diseases. humanitarian emergencies. The health sector can do this by putting in place the right structures, systems and skills for the next emergency.”

Ms Salvi added: “The lessons identified during this event will be relevant not only for the Western Balkan region, but for all those working in health emergency responses in Europe and around the world.”

Dr Audra Diers-Lawson, associate professor at Kristiania University College in Norway and editor of the Journal of International Crisis and Risk Communication Research, said: “There is a growing body of social science evidence of this pandemic and health emergencies. on the factors that influence whether people accept or reject advice on how to protect themselves. The data shows that 3 factors are critical: whether they think the risk is both imminent and serious, whether they think the institution giving the advice is technically competent, and whether they trust the institution giving the advice. gives advice. »

Dr Diers-Lawson continued, “Monitoring and analyzing community perceptions of risk and attitudes towards institutions is essential to designing a good communication strategy. The tricky part is knowing how to do it in a way that is quick and convenient enough to provide evidence of action by health response teams.

The workshop highlighted the need for cross-sector cooperation, collaboration and information sharing, and showed how the sub-regional and regional exchange of best practices and lessons learned during the COVID pandemic -19 can help build RCCE capacity of countries before, during and after public health emergencies.

Suggestions for improving RCCE capacity developed as a result of this workshop will include actions to be taken by Member States in the European Region and by WHO itself. Workshop participants will also advise their health authorities to use the recommendations in the development of country- and region-specific RCCE action plans.

WHO is committed to providing further support to countries to implement these recommendations, which are in line with the Western Balkans Health and Wellbeing Roadmap (‎2021-2025)‎ and the European work plan 2020-2025‎ – “United action for better health in Europe”.