Effective communication is the key to containing a health emergency

Written by Himani Rathore

Robot wearing a VR set

April 7, 2020 | Aman Gupta in Express Healthcare

It is hard to find an online platform at the moment where COVID-19 or coronavirus is not a trending topic. From Twitter and LinkedIn to Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and even meme generating platforms, there is an upsurge in the flow of content related to this deadly pandemic. However, an information boom of this nature comes with challenges of its own. While there is plenty of information at everyone’s disposal which contributes immensely in spreading awareness, it also leads to the spread of fake news and misinformation. The direct result of this is partial information dissemination which can prove to be more dangerous than having no information at all. Communication lies at the heart of any effective public health campaign and the only way to contain a health emergency such as the one we face today is to create appropriate channels of communication that relay correct information to the public.

Unfortunately, health organisations across the world are finding it difficult to rein in the news flow and ensure accurate messaging amid the COVID-19 outbreak. As Laurance Fishburne’s character in the popular movie Contagion points out: even though we know that in order to get the virus we need to first come in contact with the infection, yet to be scared all we need is to come in contact with a rumour. In the digital world we live today, this statement rings truer than ever. 

Over the last month, an information overload or lack thereof has been a cause of worry the world-over. Misinformation surrounding the spread and symptoms of COVID-19 circulated across social media has led to severe panic and mismanagement in many parts of the world. Western countries especially across the American continents saw a rise in panic buying of essential commodities which has now led to a shortage of supplies including protective gear for frontline workers like masks and gloves. When the spread of coronavirus in Europe made headlines, most markets saw an overflow of customers jostling to stock up toilet paper, sanitisers and essentials like milk and bread. In Australia, some supermarkets ran out of toilet paper in a matter of few hours. The same trend followed in countries across the global West. One of the biggest questions that came up then was why are people panic-buying? The answer to this links directly to the lack of effective communication. People reacted dramatically to events they didn’t know enough about due to a fear of the unknown. 

There is a knowledge vacuum that exists today in the health communication ecosystem with more noise than matter around healthcare. Imposing lockdowns in countries across the world helps in containing a pandemic only if the right communication is put out to the citizens. On one hand government channels have failed to effectively and consistently channel information about health issues especially during a public health emergency such as COVID-19. As of today, there is no defined communication strategy when it comes to health issues. The existing multimedia environment allows for a constant newsflow that lacks credibility. It is important therefore to break the clutter and channel trustworthy and credible information about healthcare which is vetted by professionals in the field. In the midst of a pandemic, this can prove to be a life-saving strategy.

The problem we face today is that the COVID-19 pandemic spread faster than the news about it. It is the responsibility of lawmakers and health organisations to inform and educate citizens by stepping up their communication strategies and busting myths around the pandemic. The World Health Organisation was slow on the uptake but is now actively delivering campaigns to validate facts from rumours and create awareness. The coronavirus outbreak is a call to action for the healthcare industry as a whole to come out and actively create a step-by-step communication strategy that can be useful in the future as well. 

In India, WhatsApp is one of the most widely used social media platforms. It is usually the first platform where news and information are circulated. The fluidity of the platform allows messages to travel quickly and across geographies making it even more difficult to differentiate fact from fake news. However, India cracked down on the circulation of fake news through WhatsApp by declaring it a criminal offence. Within days of its implementation people were even arrested for causing panic. Nonetheless, this formula hasn’t worked in completely stopping the spread of fake news because of a missing reliable and consistent communication channel. This has remained a loophole in the health space for a long time and is a problem faced by nearly all countries hit by the epidemic. There currently exists an educational vacuum regarding health issues and emergencies. There is not enough investment put into monitoring trends in the health sector in order to be prepared for a pandemic of this sort.  

A pandemic comes unannounced, but it is important to keep people informed and aware consistently instead of struggling with communication lapses in times of crises. The strategy should focus heavily on listening and analytics and keeping up with the trends especially around health. This would help in actively mapping audiences and gauging awareness levels. Moreover, it would help identify vacuums of information or misinformation hotspots where news can be disseminated effectively. However, creating a communication channel is not enough as the news-flow must be backed up and delivered by trusted sources. This could be an opportunity for organisations to use owned digital channels to spread information or bring on board key opinion leaders and influencers in the health sector to translate validated data for the masses. The WHO has now launched a WhatsApp business account which provides vetted information to users. Taking a cue from that health institutions across the world as well as local administrations and world bodies must begin to acknowledge that creating specific, self-owned mediums through which information flows is a central need not only to fight a public health crisis but also to otherwise spread awareness through public health campaigns.  

A brief glimpse at Google search trends magnifies the glaring lapses in communication through the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite continuous discussions around coronavirus and COVID-19 through the month of March, there are still doubts in the minds of people in terms of what precautions they should take. Some of the questions that have been trending on Google Search deal with basic things like whether one should wear a mask or not, should air conditioners be used and are hand sanitisers effective. This shows how ill-informed people are about basic precautions and health advisories.

The need of the hour is to strategically monitor rumour mongering and beat it effectively. These strategies must be aligned with the private healthcare market to expand the reach of awareness while preparing for any unforeseen emergencies such as the one we face today. Pharmaceutical, medical devices and healthcare companies also play a big role in creating perception around health issues. A broader approach that creates various channels of communication to reach audiences in different demographics would prove useful.  

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