Cutting through the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’
BANGKOK – “Trusted, timely, accurate, simple and widely shared risk information saves lives, particularly when it reaches the last mile and is used by vulnerable communities”.
This how the Chief of UNDRR’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Loretta Hieber Girardet, described the importance of risk communication in regional and national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Countries that have succeeded in curbing or preventing the spread of COVID-19 have all used risk communication in their online and offline messaging to help people protect themselves from infection.
At the same time, a deluge of social media rumours and conspiracy theories have spurred the creation of a parallel “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation.
Enhancing risk communication and countering misinformation in the COVID-19 crisis was the theme of UNDRR’s 30 April webinar which drew over 880 participants from 81 countries.
One of the countries featured in the webinar was the Republic of Korea which has been held up as a model in the COVID-19 response. The country has pioneered the use of digital technology to reach vast segments of the public. Key to this success has been the government’s decision not to centrally control the COVID-19 messages, but rather giving local authorities the flexibility to communicate as they see fit:
“They can send a message to their residents without having to receive approval from the central government. They are able to make their own decisions and to fast track the process,” said Dae-Joong Lee, Director of Development Finance in the Korean Ministry of Economy and Finance.
In Mongolia, which shares a large border with China, the government was quick to institute measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as early as in January.
One of the measures was to close the schools and move to distance education through public television and online classes.
The government used this arrangement to introduce COVID-19 educational videos staring children to harness the enthusiasm of the children to reach their parents and grandparents.
“Families, caretakers, and children were all engaged in this process,” said Sayanaa Lkhagvasuren, Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia, noting that “the cutest videos would be shared on social media ensuring wide dissemination.”
While an asset to communicators, social media has also become a source of concern for health officials as misinformation has spread across the region.
“Misinformation is a public health issue and it unless you address it firmly, it is as much of an issue as the actual epidemic,” said Supriya Bezbaruah, who is a Risk Communication Officer with WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia.
As part of its response, WHO is monitoring social media to identify misinformation and counter it with facts. This includes misinformation about behaviours that supposedly protect from COVID-19, such as smoking, and rumours about sources of the pandemic.
“There was a big rumour in India and Nepal that eating chicken causes COVID-19 and it went viral, which had a huge impact on the poultry industry,” said Dr Bezbaruah.
That said, the panelists agreed that there is no quick or easy method for countering the “infodemic”.
“Risk communication is a process, not a product. That is because people are complex, their lives are complex, and so risk communication should reflect that,” said Gemma Hayman, who is the Cambodia country director for BBC Media Action, which is currently working in seven Asian countries to counter misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19.
The BBC’s work involves directly debunking myths and stigma, and “more importantly, supporting audiences to think critically about how they are consuming and sharing information,” according to Ms Hayman.
Capturing this simple but important point, their campaign challenges people to think about the content they are about to share by asking them to pose the questions: “is it true? is it kind? is it helpful?”
Understanding the target audience is equally important to reaching and influencing them.
“Content needs to be grounded in local realities, people need to be able to relate to it. They need to be able to see people like them. They need to be able to understand it,” said Ms Hayman.
This is point was echoed by Raijeli Nicole, Oxfam International’s Regional Director for the Pacific, who is based in Fiji:
“At the end of this, you want ordinary people to take action and you want them to take responsibility.”
In the case of the Pacific, with its multiple vulnerabilities and challenges, this means messaging on COVID-19 must adapt to the local context.
Ms Nicole gave the example of calling on people to wash their hands, which may seem like a simple message on the surface, but would cause confusion in a country like the Solomon Islands, where many people lack running water and have to make a conscious decision about the type of water to use for daily tasks.
However, no amount of clever or contextualized messaging would work if there is no trust between the messenger and the audience.
“Trust is a currency and social capital that we must invest in,” said Ms Nicole.
Beyond trust, even making simple changes in how we describe prevention measures can help counter stigma.
WHO’s Dr Bezbaruah recommends replacing the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing” and “social connectedness”.
These terms underscore the need to respect prevention measures but also highlight the importance of maintaining close social links throughout the COVID response.