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How can health professionals and the media cut the clutter of false facts around COVID-19?

The first pandemic in the age of social media has thrown up the challenge of a glut of unverified information about the virus and the disease

Written by Chandrakant Lahariya | New Delhi |
May 2, 2021 6:25:12 am
COVID-19, information on COVID-19, COVID-19 social media, health professionals, false facts about COVID-19, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsA wall painted with a graffiti of frontline workers in Mumbai, Maharashtra. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)

In the last one year, the amount of time I have spent interacting, engaging and responding to journalists would come next only to the time spent on my public-health work. Nearly 100 years ago, the world had learnt a hard lesson. During the great influenza pandemic of 1918-20, nations fighting World War I had thought that the news of the pandemic would affect the morale of their soldiers and citizens. They censored the press from reporting on the disease spreading widely. Two years later, when the pandemic ended, an estimated 500 million people — a third of the then population — developed the infection and at least 50 (by some estimates, 100) million people died worldwide. Would it have been less severe and the impact on society and the world less if there was no censor on the press? The answer, arguably, is yes.

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On March 11, 2020, COVID-19 became the first pandemic in the age of social media. A novel coronavirus and the many unknowns about the disease it caused became fertile ground for social-media conversations. The unverified, or, at times, outrightly wrong information about the virus and the disease were exchanged between hundreds of millions of people across the world. This (mis)information epidemic or, the “info-demic” was proving to be a bigger threat than the virus. The consequences were real and serious. Citizens with specific racial appearance were abused, harassed and discriminated against; health workers were attacked while doing their duties, asked to vacate rented houses in residential areas and even a hearsay of someone in the family having tested positive for COVID-19 often resulted in social boycotts.

The world, in a sense, has been fighting two pandemics: One caused by the virus and the other by the “info-demic”. For both, we require reliable information, communicated in layperson’s language and widely disseminated through credible sources. A year later, a functioning partnership between health experts (medical doctors, epidemiologists, public-health experts and scientists) and the media (both print and broadcast journalists) has made countering and containing the “info-demic” possible.

There is more to this newfound collaboration. It is for its ability to influence and reach those who formulate the policy, inter alia, that the media is termed as the fourth pillar of democracy. However, in their 2013 book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, citing their research, argued that health is virtually absent from public debate and democratic politics in India. Seven years later, the pandemic has changed things a lot. Since its onset, people may have consumed more health-related news, analysis, opinion pieces and explainers than many previous decades put together and health experts have been propelled into the editorial, opinion and explainer pages of newspapers and prime-time debates of news channels.

A pandemic is not merely a health challenge but has a social and economic impact as well. Journalists and public-health experts share a few common purposes: speaking on behalf of the people; highlighting their plight to the decision makers and providing information useful to the layperson. The two working together meant that society got a “360-degree view” of the pandemic — the insider (hospitals and health settings) perspective and the ringside view (the plight of the people in accessing health services, the migrant crisis and the social impact of the pandemic). The evidence-informed guidance of health experts, the credibility of the print media and the reach of television made fighting the “info-demic” feasible.

COVID-19, information on COVID-19, COVID-19 social media, health professionals, false facts about COVID-19, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news A graffiti of a corona warrior in New Delhi. (Photo: Praveen Khanna)

During the ongoing pandemic, the two have worked in a mutually symbiotic relationship. At an individual level, many health experts have mastered the art of communicating science in byte-sized information to the general audience (This skill is not a given for all and was not taught to medical graduates till 2018). Alongside, for most of 2020, almost every news was directly or indirectly linked to health and that had made nearly every journalist a “health journalist”, as a friend in the media put it. A few days ago, it took me nearly two hours and a bit of re-reading of a scientific paper about possible airborne transmission of SARS CoV2, published in the reputed medical journal The Lancet. The next morning, most newspapers carried an explainer on that article. It took me barely 10 minutes to read that article and get the gist of that complex scientific paper, captured so aptly for the layman. That is how the COVID-19 pandemic has been fought, by conveying complex in-depth scientific findings into usable information for the public. There’s hope that science has entered households and we have more people skilled in communicating science to the common man.

The world is still in the middle of the pandemic. Amid the ongoing challenge, public health — and health services and systems — have come to the centre of public discourse. It creates another opportunity to focus on what it will take to work towards better health for all citizens. It is an opportune time for the partnership between journalists and health experts to be formalised. Can the journalist sustain this momentum to ask difficult questions of health policymakers? Can health experts use their science-communication skills to help people adopt healthier lifestyles? What are the ways to leverage this newly-formed partnership to strengthen and transform India’s health system? Can the media do its bit so that even after the pandemic, health remains part of a sustained public discourse, which is of greater political priority and figures higher in the election agenda?

All of these are possibilities; however, to make these happen, the two need to work together. The German physician, philosopher, politician and writer Rudolf Virchow said, “A physician is a natural attorney of the poor”. In epidemics, pandemics and other health emergencies, I believe, that role — of “the attorney of the poor”, the vulnerable and the marginalised — should be assumed by public-health experts
and journalists.

(Dr Lahariya is a public policy and health systems expert. He is the co-author of Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic)

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