While the threat of COVID-19 has triggered a serious global health concern, a great deal of the fear surrounding the disease is being fueled by widespread misinformation. We live in a world of interesting parallels where we have access to more information than any previous generation, but at the same time we’re plagued by fake news and misinformation.
Separating truth from outright falsehoods can be a daunting task, especially in the era of social media, and what the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed the world’s first infodemic – “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
“What is communicated is just as important as how it is communicated.” Elizabeth Ntonjira, Amref Health Africa
The WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020. By yesterday (26 March), the World Health Organization (WHO) situation report showed that the disease had killed 20,834 people worldwide and infected 449,219 in 200 countries and territories, causing fear and panic around the world.
In Africa, coronavirus is now a reality. As of yesterday, 38 countries and two territories in the WHO African region had reported infections, sparking fears of that COVID-19 could overwhelm already fragile public health systems.
Effective crisis communication vital
A key component of managing any crisis is effective communication — which can be difficult during an infodemic. As the world scrambles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the role of effective communication is becoming increasingly critical.
Health experts and governments need to position themselves as trustworthy sources of information to the public, who need to understand the situation, be aware of the precautions they can take, and stay calm.
Recently in Kenya, an audio recording claiming there were 63 cases of coronavirus in the country was circulated via WhatsApp. This was before Kenya reported the first case of coronavirus on 13 March.
The Ministry of Health responded by issuing a press release assuring the public that the recording was part of a simulation exercise during a crisis communication training on COVID-19. By then, however, conspiracy theories had already begun to spread, accusing the government of hiding the truth.
The WHO’s efforts to maintain a constant stream of information through its daily press briefings has been a model example of how effective communication can be used to fight global disease outbreaks.
This is not the first time the health body has deployed its communications machinery to keep the world updated on global health events, thus helping to manage real and potential public health emergencies.
For example, during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the WHO, UNICEF and other partners used communication specialists to engage with communities, raise awareness about the Ebola vaccination campaign, and provide vital information on prevention of transmission.
Similarly, India’s Social Mobilisation Network (SMNet) – which played a key role in eliminating polio in the country — has been lauded as one of the most successful public health platforms for engaging communities. At its launch, the SMNet was a network of mostly young women who were deployed to speak with parents and caregivers about the importance of polio vaccination, at a time when vaccine refusal was high among the underserved and marginalised.
These social mobilisers complemented other communication initiatives, including billboards and advertisements in print and broadcast media, leading to increased trust in vaccination programmes and eventually a sharp drop in the number of polio cases in high-risk districts.
These examples point to the power of effective communication as well as the importance of community engagement in managing outbreaks. By going into communities and speaking with them through trusted media and community leaders, sharing factual information and taking time to allay fears while remaining open and honest, governments and health workers can build trust and use this in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and other disease outbreaks.
Part of building this trust includes taking control of the narrative as the outbreak evolves and recognising that what is communicated is just as important as how it is communicated. Governments, health authorities, the media and other key institutions need to show empathy and care while communicating, and need to ensure access to balanced information.
To complement continuing efforts on the coronavirus pandemic awareness, Amref Health Africa is consolidating information for public consumption through its COVID-19 Africa Information Centre. The online portal, among other things, provides simplified answers to frequently asked questions about coronavirus. It is a valuable tool in the fight against this outbreak by offering information to support community education and encourage vigilance, without spreading fear.
Through effective communication and action rooted in evidence – supported by better coordination among media, the government and the health fraternity – Africa, and indeed the rest of the world, can overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.