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Principal Investigator: Sian White, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)

Research Snapshot: Listening to communities improves outbreak response

Community engagement has been recognised as a core pillar of outbreak response. This study found evidence that a new approach, the Community Perceptions Tracker (CPT), helped to track trends in community attitudes towards the COVID-19 pandemic which then informed adaptations to preventative programmes.

View snapshot

What did the study set out to achieve?

The aim of the research was to understand how community perceptions towards COVID-19 and response programmes change over the course of the outbreak. The research explored three objectives:

  1. Understand how community perceptions change over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak;
  2. Understand whether the Community Perception Tracker (CPT) enables staff within humanitarian organisations to make more informed decisions and adjust programming accordingly;
  3. Understand whether adjustments made to COVID-19 response programmes are seen to be more acceptable to communities and result in perceivable behavioural change.

We set out to improve the quality of community engagement and behaviour change communication programmes so as to strengthen communities’ trust and acceptability of these processes. The research aimed to improve understanding of behavioural enablers and barriers for communities affected by COVID-19, and to enable humanitarian actors to rapidly adapt and correct their programme activities in line with people’s understanding, priorities and needs, with resulting behaviour change that helps minimise infection risks.

Sian White

Principal Investigator, LSHTM

The CPT is a novel approach for enabling community engagement throughout the course of an outbreak. By conducting this research, we hope to understand how it is utilised by staff to improve programmes and whether this results in meaningful improvements for populations. LSHTM are excited that this research will also enable us to strengthen local research capacity.

What were the key findings?

Tracking perception trends: The CPT identified changes in the patterns of community perceptions over time. For example, early on perceptions primarily related to questions about the origin of the disease and preventative actions. As time went on people were concerned by the secondary socio-economic impacts of COVID, government responses, and vaccine hesitancy.

Programme improvements: CPT staff felt the process allowed them to develop closer relationships with communities and be more systematic about the way they undertook community engagement. They reported the CPT led to more frequent programmatic adaptations. This included being able to update communication materials to address common perceptions, modifying programming where new needs emerged (e.g. adding masks to hygiene kits to address shortages or shifting their programming to focus more on facilitating vaccine uptake) and advocating on behalf of communities.

There was also some evidence to indicate that the CPT process made programmes more acceptable and relevant to crisis-affected communities.

What does this mean for policymakers and practitioners?

Tracking perceptions on a rolling basis is critical during outbreaks, as community perceptions were found to change over the course of the pandemic in response to transmission dynamics, government trust and policies, the spread of misinformation and community norms. Invariably, these changing perceptions affect community responses to public health measures.

The CPT was valued by humanitarian staff as it supports development of active listening skills, programmatic reflection, and the discussion of crosssectoral and inter-agency issues. It was found to be an interactive and feasible way of learning from populations, though it requires critical analysis and reflections from staff to translate insights into programmatic improvements. The CPT could be used to complement standardized approaches to programmatic learning, monitoring or accountability.

The evaluation identified opportunities to improve the CPT. These are being used to develop more detailed guidance on training, data collection and analysis, and the tracking of programme adaptations. Guidance will be published to enable other humanitarian organisations to replicate the CPT in their own areas of work.

Next steps

Key outputs from the research will be a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) framework for use of the CPT in public health programmes. We will also publish two articles in peer-reviewed journals.

The CPT data will be used to influence decision-making mechanisms that communities cannot access on their own. Humanitarian implementation organisations are exploring how the CPT approach can be used in future outbreaks and other types of emergencies. In Zimbabwe, teams are cascading the approach to the village level so that community members can also collect perceptions.

Ghassan Gharzeddine, a Research Assistant at Oxfam conducts remote phone interviews with Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. (Credit: Oxfam, Jihad AbdulGhani)
The ACF research team assessing handwashing facilities in Zimbabwe in the drought-affected areas where ACF and partners are working. (Credit: ACF)
Action Contre la Faim (ACF) Country Director Zimbabwe speaking to quarantine returnees about their experience. Photographer: Taku Ngirazie, ACF
Fred Karembo from ACF's local nutrition and food security partner Nutrition Action Zimbabwe (NAZ) speaking to young mothers currently at a quarantine centre in Mutare, Zimbabwe about how they are keeping themselves and their infants healthy during this time. Photographer: Taku Ngirazie, ACF
A Nabad staff member documents COVID-19 related perceptions on his mobile device while speaking with a woman in a settlement for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. Credit: Oxfam

Latest Updates

Lessons learned about adaptive research design during the pandemic

7 Jun 2021

In this blog the team reflect on using the Community Perception Tracker approach, and how they have used the unusual pandemic context to strengthen elements of their research.

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2021Jun

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