Pakistan is loving our new video, promoting COVID-19 social distancing. Set in the atmospheric streets of old Peshawar, chai wallas, carpenters, and young cricketers bop their heads to a thumping beat and repeat a catchy reminder - “Basharullah!” - to stay six feet apart. The creative insight for “Basharullah!” was the need to create a catchphrase people could use disarmingly to those not maintaining social distancing in a humorous fashion and finding everyday reference points for what six feet of distance is. It is part of a larger messaging campaign that runs the gamut from the humorous, to everyday vignettes and to that of the deathly serious consequences of COVID-19. In one frame, evocative of a Wess Anderson film, two identical twins sit on opposite ends of an elongated sofa. The video has been hailed by influencers and retweeted by government ministers and opposition politicians alike. “Watch this!” asserts Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Pakistan’s Oscar-winning director.
Peshawar is the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). KP’s provincial health system has been struggling from under-investment in the health sector, and a conspiracy-laden cultural resistance to vaccination means that less-developed parts of the province have some of the worst health indicators in the world. As of last week, the province’s test-positivity ratios were still comparatively low, but an upward trend indicates that a second wave is approaching.
Pakistan has had a milder pandemic than India, Iran or Bangladesh and experts are still struggling to fully explain why the population has had milder symptoms and lower death rates. The government of Pakistan, like the other governments of the world, has been working to build public support for social distancing. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was not a likely leader in convincing the public of the value of social distancing. But in contrast to other provinces, UNDP surveys have found overwhelming public support in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s province for social distancing, where even business owners have reported supporting the government’s strategy of a targetted lockdowns. This support appears to have been bolstered by a strong communications strategy backstopped by high-quality creative work.
Weeks ahead of the first documented cases earlier in the year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial government and UNDP worked to develop a strategy to win the “public awareness war” on COVID19. The strategy was designed to ensure that people trust that the government is transparent, credible, and in control. The KP Health Minister understood that any failure to communicate early, accurately, and regularly would erode the government’s ability to manage the crisis.
“Basharullah!” and earlier viral communication products are the result of a collaboration between three institutions: The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the United Nations Development Programme, and USAID. The creative engine is a stand-alone strategic communications unit operating out of the KP Chief Minister’s office. Run by a popular local satirist and a team of creatives, the unit makes riskier and more creative messages which primarily spread for free on Pakistan’s myriad WhatsApp channels and proliferation of news networks.
The team first gained international recognition when they collaborated on Pakistan’s first pro bono public service announcement that used local preferences for strength and courage to create a corona-fighting hero with a handwashing superpower, inverting local tropes of toxic masculinity. These popular hits are among the hundreds of short videos they have produced in local languages during the pandemic.
The pandemic is not yet over. As we head into the second wave, “Basharullah!” reminds us of the bright spots and innovative collaborations in the most unlikely of places.