Tackling COVID-19: Dr Sharath Srinivasan

“Without trust, we don’t flatten the curve,” says Sharath Srinivasan, whose work in developing countries has given him an acute insight into how people’s

Cambridge University News • cambridge
June 25, 2020 6 minSource

I’ve spent most of the last few years in Kenya and eastern Africa. When I wasn’t there, I was usually scampering back and forth between the Alison Richard Building on Cambridge’s Sidgwick site and King’s College, somehow covering my daily steps quota. Now I’m working at the kitchen table, my son’s desk in his room, or the bedroom. I’m missing the study we never had!

I work on the ‘Risk Communications and Community Engagement’ part of the global pandemic response. This is about understanding the experience of the virus from a community perspective, then delivering trusted and effective messaging to support healthy behaviours as well as communicating feedback to public health actors and authorities.

My own expertise lies in understanding citizen-authority relations in developing countries, and how citizens engage with and hold to account decision-makers in policy-making and service delivery. Over the years I’ve also worked on innovations using media and communication technology to engage with and hear from hard-to-reach populations, and derive rapid social insights from large volumes of local language textual data. My work led to the spin-off Africa’s Voices Foundation, a non-profit I cofounded, based in Kenya. The team deploys our novel method combining local language radio and a free SMS channel to deliver governance and social change programmes.  

As soon as COVID-19 hit, we were engaging populations in Kenya and Somalia. Two years ago, I was supported by the Wellcome Trust and UK DFID to evaluate the use of our interactive radio method for rapid social insights in health crises, as part of a global rethink following the West African Ebola outbreak. We’re now using this method and delivering insights to the wider national and international COVID-19 response.

I also work on improving socio-technical solutions for effective risk communication and community engagement, in collaboration with Luke Church in the Computer Laboratory. COVID-19 motivated us to rapidly build a communications tool for handling large volumes of one-to-one SMS conversations. If people raise urgent concerns, convey rumours, misinformation or stigma, or ask questions about COVID-19, the Africa’s Voices team needs to respond to each person quickly and empathetically but using an approved response protocol. A bot simply won’t do. We developed a tool called katikati that’s being used in Somalia right now, handling many thousands of interactions each week.   

Trust is the biggest challenge of this pandemic. Who and what is trusted by people determines how they respond. How much do we trust in ourselves and our communities, in our social/religious leaders, in scientific expertise, and in people, nations, governments and international agencies globally? Without trust playing a very large role, we don’t flatten the curve through distancing and hygiene, achieve track and trace, protect the vulnerable, adopt new vaccines, reopen our businesses, institutions, even our borders, and ready ourselves to tackle a possible second wave. 

Our research is about unearthing the worldviews and perspectives of communities, then thinking about the communications that will make sense for them. Imagine you’re a Somali forcibly displaced from your home due to drought and conflict, now in a crowded informal camp with no running water and limited sanitation, in the midst of a locust plague that is wreaking havoc on food production and livelihoods. Your life is precarious already, and you face a range of risks and anxieties. You are told by a government announcement that this new virus is sweeping the world, and to protect your community you must change the way you live in ways that are hard to achieve and put your livelihood in greater peril. You turn to your local Sheikh for guidance, as you always do - it’s what they say that matters, not what the government, or WHO, or UNICEF is saying.    

Somehow this pandemic arrived when our communication technologies and data transmission capabilities were ready for global remote networked collaboration. We might all be a bit ‘Zoomed out’, but I’m amazed every day by how I can collaborate on a response in Somalia with multiple organisations and far flung individuals. Ten years ago cloud computing was in its infancy, and we could not have managed this.

I am more motivated and passionate than ever about the importance and value of applied interdisciplinary research that really harnesses expertise across social, biomedical and technological sciences. In Cambridge there’s a strong spirit of collaboration across departments and disciplines that’s very inspiring. I’ve seen this through the support given to me by initiatives such as Cambridge-Africa and Cambridge Global Challenges.

When the pandemic is over I’m looking forward to traveling back to Kenya and eastern Africa and meeting up again with the amazing Africa’s Voices team.

Sharath Srinivasan is David and Elaine Potter Lecturer in Governance & Human Rights and Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR), and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. Read more about the Africa's Voices project on Somali views in the early days of COVID-19.


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