Exclusive: Inside India’s comms plan for Covid-19

By Joshua Chambers & Sandeep Singh

Interview with Abhishek Singh, CEO of MyGov India and CEO National e-Governance Division.

The novelist Albert Camus observed of a pandemic that “once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended”.

Such is the job for government communications - stirring citizens’ hope; keeping them informed; fighting fake news; and retaining the trust of citizens at a time of stress, pain and turmoil.

India’s MyGov platform is a crucial part of this national mission, with its vision to “demystify government for citizens”. GovInsider spoke to CEO Abhishek Singh, who is also chief of the National e-Governance Division, to find out more.

Along came Covid

MyGov has existed since Prime Minister Modi’s first term in 2014, and is essentially a social media platform with 10 million users plus a series of communications initiatives run through Facebook, Twitter, radio, Instagram - any useful tool to reach ordinary people and tell them what’s happening.

The programme has been at the forefront of India’s move to battle Covid-19. “When the Covid-19 pandemic began, it was realised that words and phrases like ‘Quarantine’, ‘Social Distancing’, ‘Lockdown’ need to be communicated well,” Singh explains. “Most people didn’t know what these terms meant; social distancing was an alien concept.”

MyGov was tasked with finding better ways to communicate these ideas. They also had to battle the spread of fake news. “We had all kinds of conspiracy theories ranging from the Wuhan Lab experiment gone wrong, to the use of hot water and garlic to kill the virus. There was a need to bust these myths and focus on making interventions - like use of masks and washing hands for 20 seconds - the norm,” he says.

They tasked epidemiologists and health experts with “dos and don’ts” to prevent the spread of the virus, and new communications to battle the myths head on. MyGov visibly favours simple communications - often using short videos of even just five seconds and infographics to visually tell a story. This makes them easier to translate into the many languages spoken across India, including sign language.

The team decided to use as many channels and platforms as possible. This includes Telegram, TikTok, Helo, VMate, and Likee. Bollywood superstars like Amitabh Bachchan joined in, helping post short videos on hygiene, for instance, and a fun video from another moviestar, Ajay Devgn, joked that downloading a contact tracing app was like downloading a “personal bodyguard”.

They also created a chatbot, MyGovSaathi Chatbot, on WhatsApp and Facebook that gives updates on infection rates, splits data by states, and advises on where to get help, including donation and volunteering opportunities.

Contact Tracing

Most nations are finding that a major part of battling Covid-19 is about contact tracing. How can those at risk be isolated quickly and helped?

Government launched a contact tracing app, called Aarogya Setu - roughly meaning ‘the bridge to health’ -  which combines bluetooth and GPS data to understand who people have met in the past 14 days. It also calculates their risk of infection based on that data. 110 million people have so far downloaded this, Singh shares, making it the highest downloaded app in the world.

It has been called “controversial” by the BBC because it collects users’ location data, and therefore has been criticised on privacy grounds. Singh told the BBC that the data is only being used to tackle Covid-19. This week, the government also released the code of the app as open source to allow hackers to see how the system works, and to advise on security flaws that could be used by bad actors.

This app only covers smartphone users, but there are 550 million people who have simpler ‘feature phones’ instead, according to IDC India in the Economic Times.

To serve these users, India launched the 1921 IVRS Aarogya Setu hotline. People give this number a missed call - saving them money - and receive a free return call from the automated hotline asking them self-assessment questions in their choice of 11 different languages. Data is again shared with the National Health Agency, and they will be contacted again if at risk.

Digital India

Covid-19 has seen us all of using remote working systems and collaboration tools. India wants homegrown systems to be at the forefront of these solutions.

The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology announced an “innovation challenge,” Singh says, to inspire local companies to develop a video conferencing application.

Stage one of the competition shortlisted 12 teams who each received 500,000 rupees (US$6.6k) of funding to build a system.

The second stage sees teams build a prototype, with three chosen and a further US$26k funding provided for the winners.

Finally, by 29th July the winner will receive US$132,000 to deliver the system for the use of the Government of India for one year, with US$13,000 in maintenance fees, and the ability to commercialise the government-endorsed app across the nation.

What’s next?

For an international audience, MyGov India is fascinating because of the work it has to do on digital inclusion. With half a billion feature phone users, it cannot just build fancy smartphone apps and must ensure it serves all of its users - young and old, rich and poor.

Equally, in a country of 22 national languages and many more dialects, government cannot rely on press releases and wordy statements. Simple videos, often fronted by cricketers and movie stars, are vital for communications.

Some of these videos seem rather esoteric, such as Indian classical musicians singing for viewers as part of the ‘Positive Harmonies’ campaign. But comms must go where the people are, rather than expecting them to seek out information. Lessons that stir hope and help cope with a pandemic.

This article initially referred to Say Namaste, which was not a part of the competition and is another Indian video conferencing tool