A month ago, community radio stations in Bangladesh started broadcasting information related to a quickly spreading threat: COVID-19. The amount of this content escalated rapidly: from 25 hours by March 23rd, to 40 hours three days later.
These 16 stations are non-commercial, donor-supported, locally run, and mostly volunteer-operated. They’re especially useful to communicate with people with low or no literacy, or to keep up with the quickly changing situation on the ground. NGOs like Translators without Borders, which generally depend on face-to-face interaction in Bangladesh, are turning to other formats. “Some of the partners that we’re working with are using radio, which of course is ideal,” says Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response for Translators without Borders.
Mark Manash Saha, the program coordinator of the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC), says that the community radio stations typically broadcast information on relevant health topics, from family planning to vaccination. Of course, these aren’t typical times. “The situation is deteriorating very fast,” Saha notes of the spread of COVID-19 in Bangladesh. There’s been limited testing of Bangladeshi nationals returning from other countries in recent weeks, amidst shortages of testing and other equipment. And as one of the world’s most densely populated countries, it will be very challenging to maintain social distancing, or even the prevention of large gatherings, in Bangladesh. (The government has shut the country’s largest brothel, amidst other containment measures.)
There’s a hunger for accurate information, and community radio stations are a part of this response. According to Saha, these FM stations have a collective audience of 6.8 million people. These include people who listen via their cellular phones, from farmers in their fields to homemakers in their homes. As for the broadcasters, Saha estimates that ¾ of the volunteers are staying away from the studio. He says that the volunteers are working with local coronavirus prevention committees, and collecting information over the phone.
This content is locally produced, after being checked by Saha, but the medical advice is taken from Bangladeshi medical experts, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the national government. Here’s an example of an exchange (translated by Abdur Rahman):
“1) Hello Listeners, I am Emon Hasan. I was talking about coronavirus with Dr. Aiub Ali, Supervisor of Jhenaidah Sadar Hospital. Let’s hear what he was saying:
2) My name is Dr. Mohammad Aiub Ali, Supervisor, Jhenaidah Sadar Hospital.
1) Well, are you equipped to test and identity coronavirus in your hospital?
2) Actually it’s still in the testing phase at our central level. We don’t need to panic. We have 3 cases as of now, who came from Italy. We are working hard. Our medical teams are working. And the expats who are coming home from abroad, we are asking them to confine themselves in their houses for 14 days. And if there is any patient like this, we ask them to stay alert.
1) Did any corona patient come to Sadar Hospital yet?
2) No no, no corona patient came yet. If we suspect anyone, we are sending them to Dhaka. We are not equipped to test corona. We are referring the patients to IEDCR [Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research] for accurate diagnosis.
1) Please tell us how to stay safe from corona.
2) The most important thing is to raise awareness. We should stay home and take normal medication for common cold and coughing, we shouldn’t go to hospital for this. We should only go to hospital if we are having severe problems such as difficulty breathing and very high fever. We are alerting everyone, discussing with others. In case of any problem, we will take necessary steps.
1) Sir, if anyone comes to Sadar Hospital suspecting they are infected, where should they go first?
2) We have emergency and outdoor. They should go through the process as usual. We will check. If we think and suspect that they are infected, we will take steps accordingly.
1) Right sir. Thank you so very much on behalf of Radio Jhenuk.
2) Thanks to you too.”
Community Radio Chilmari during the visit of Free Press Unlimited representatives in January 2017
Deciding on content can be delicate. Certain people have been advocating prayer as a sole course of action, but, Saha says, “it is clear…that action without prayer is useless.” Thus, “We are not denying directly to the religious leader, but we are motivating people that God wants you to be clean.”
Another challenge is keeping up with the fast flow of information. For instance, different medical officials have given different advice on the usefulness of wearing masks (a situation that has occurred in many other countries as well). And while most of the country speaks Bengali, groups such as Rohingya refugees would benefit from content in other languages.
One perhaps surprising piece of information going out from the community radio stations relates to handwashing options. Saha explains, “In urban communities people are using liquid soap, but in the rural areas they don’t have much money to buy liquid soap. So we are suggesting that you can use your laundry soap and even ashes.”
Research on handwashing practices in Bangladesh and elsewhere has in fact shown that ashes can be a low-cost alternative to soap. The friction with ashes and rubbing with water has been shown to reduce bacterial counts, for instance. Bangladeshi fieldwork from 2007 found that 13% of people in the sample used ash or soil to wash their hands after defecating, compared to 19% who used soap. And organizations like UNICEF have recommended that people without soap wash their hands with ash, for instance in Ethiopia.
However, soap remains the gold standard. Therese Dooley, regional water/sanitation/hygiene (WASH) adviser for the UNICEF regional office for South Asia, explains: “Where possible UNICEF recommends that people use soap and water to wash their hands and this is the priority message we use. However, where soap is unavailable and in communities where there is a tradition of using ash/soil for washing it could also be used.”
Even for low-income Bangladeshis, Dooley says, the issue is often less about the availability of soap than “the use of soap for handwashing…Soap and water is the preferred and indeed most popular solution in households in Bangladesh.” And the community radio stations continue to promote handwashing with soap as the best option.
Despite the frightening nature of the pandemic, Saha is ultimately optimistic about the role of the community radio stations and others in sharing locally relevant information and curbing the spread. “If we extend our hand and if other people extend their hand, we…will control the situation and will stop this panic.”