Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people died in Iran after consuming toxic methanol, erroneously believing that it could cure them of the disease. The pandemic has seen waves of such misinformation, prompting the World Health Organisation to coin the term, “infodemic”.
Misinformation flows associated with mass immunisation programmes have been among the top hurdles for health systems for decades, risking the health of millions of children. What’s different this time is the scale and the information environment.The pandemic in a hyperconnected world, where so much about the virus was unknown and so many people were anxious and fearful, took the deluge of misinformation to incredible levels.
Now as the COVID vaccines start rolling out, scaremongering is likely to soar as well. In fact, much before the jabs against the novel coronavirus had appeared on the horizon, there were conspiracy theories about vaccines being tailored to implant trackable microchips to steal information. As the prospect of the vaccines became more real, social media was abuzz with claims that the m-RNA technology being used by some vaccine-makers will alter the recipient’s DNA.
Such misinformation should be countered with consistent and transparent sharing of science-based information about the vaccines in a language easily accessible to citizens, their families and communities. People have a right to know what’s in the vaccine, how it will be administered, how it will work in the body, and what reactions or side-effects, if any they can expect, and how would those be addressed.
The COVID-19 inoculation drive is likely to involve the administration of more than one dose of the vaccine. It cannot, therefore, be treated as a “one-off” event. It’s a journey from the time the individual registers for vaccination to the time he/she develops immunity. The safety of that journey for the first set of vaccinated people, who will share their experiences on social media and other platforms, will shape the decisions of millions others. This journey, even before it begins, will have many touchpoints for credible information which cannot be done solely by the government. The process should involve independent actors such as academia, civil-society organisations that have strong grass roots presence, philanthropy arms of large corporate houses and the private sector other than vaccine manufacturers. In fact, it will take nothing less than a society-based approach for the vaccination drive to succeed.
The government should emphasise in its messaging that “to go or not to go” for a COVID vaccine is a “voluntary” decision, that one has to take in the interest of one’s health and that of their family. To present the decision as a “responsible choice”, and not as an imposition, will effectively kill the motivation of many rumour-mongers.
The country’s victory over polio owes much to co-opting community leaders, civil society organisations and religious heads. Many of them enjoy high trust and credibility among people and have the unique ability to turn scientific messages into contextually-relevant information in the groups of their influence. While some religious leaders could be sources of misinformation, many more are progressive and lean towards scientific and rational thinking. Such non-state actors should be involved in an alliance that can help in social mobilisation for COVID vaccination.
While these networks can help effectively reach socio-economically disadvantaged groups, and people in rural areas, a large section of population would also look up to credible experts through the mainstream media and on the internet to help them make decisions. Scientists and vaccine experts should play a proactive role in shaping the attitude of people. Industrial houses should become partners in disseminating science-based information to their employees, and through other mass-media channels.
It is also necessary for governments to be vigilant about isolated adverse incidents which cannot be ruled out in a programme of such magnitude. Adverse event monitoring should take place at the lowest level of the healthcare system and such cases should be given prompt medical and administrative attention.
Governments at the Centre and state-level are working on upscaling the cold-chain facilities and training an army of vaccinators. The leadership in the country will have to rise above their political and ideological differences. The national response to the mass vaccination drive is a rare opportunity for political leaders across party lines to close ranks and demonstrate that on issues pertaining to peoples’ health they stand united. That will be a victory not just against the pandemic but for democracy as well.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2020 under the title ‘Shine the light’. The writer is a former Union Health Secretary.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines