‘Massive infodemic’ has created a situation where science is questioned, and conspiracy theories thrive, says the writer
FOLLOWING South Africa’s first coronavirus case on March 5, President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken quick and decisive action to combat the spread of this deadly virus. But there is another killer that has reared its head during this time: misinformation about Covid-19.
Our government is managing several challenges at the same time. The most critical are to contain the spread of the virus, capacitate our health system to cope with the anticipated influx of cases and ensure the economy can keep ticking, given the pressure exerted on it by the pandemic.
Containing the spread of so-called fake news and myth-mongering, which in turn, results in stigmatisation, is an additional and unprecedented challenge.
What the World Health Organization (WHO) has dubbed “a massive infodemic” has created a situation where science is questioned, and conspiracy theories thrive. Our knowledge of the virus changes almost daily: how infectious and deadly it is, incubation periods and treatment options. It can be argued that the sheer information overload, driven mainly through social media, has blurred government’s communication efforts.
While much has been done through reputable websites and news announcements, more can be done to mitigate the spread of fake news and the societal dangers it poses. Targeted communication tailored for particular groups becomes crucial.
A case in point: to affect a youth-focused approach to help flatten the curve, creating awareness and promoting education could prove beneficial in a country like South Africa. Africa has the largest youth population globally, and locally, Stats SA’s 2019 mid-year estimates place youth (aged 18-34) at almost a third of the population (17.84 million).
Data released in April by the Health Department shows that the second most infected group is people aged 21 to 30, following those between 31 to 40.
Youth are just as susceptible to Covid-19 but are more likely to be asymptomatic, which likely makes them the biggest carriers and transmitters of the virus to unsuspecting, more vulnerable people. Characterised by unbound freedom and high inclination towards substance abuse, this pandemic warrants a bigger change in youth behaviour.
Given that social media is a breeding ground for misinformation and fake news, and understanding the youth’s proclivity to find expression in the cyber space, it is then appropriate to do our best to galvanise our young South Africans into an army of myth-busters and change agents. And to do it within the space they feel most comfortable.
Higher Health SA has historically developed a national army of peer educators at every campus community level to fight the stigma and myths on other epidemics such as HIV, TB, GBV, teenage and unplanned pregnancies among others. It is the same cohort of educated young South Africans that should be deployed for the Covid-19 myth-busting and de-stigmatisation battle.
Through our high schools, universities, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and community education and training (CET) colleges, as well as our post-school system at large, such partnerships could be effectively fostered.
The national Department of Health has been just as efficient – daily media briefings provide a direct feed to traditional media channels, radio being the lead clarion due to its wide and deep reach. On the digital front, the department has been thorough in curating Covid-19 content through its website and the recently launched and well-publicised, zero-rated micro-site as a designated repository of information.
To maximise on reach and effectiveness of the portal, all South African websites have been asked to host access to the coronavirus resource portal.
In the face of a potential public health disaster, there has never been a more opportune and equally critical time to be proactive and creative in sharing correct information, and indeed, South Africa has risen to the challenge.
Notwithstanding these conscientious efforts, this infodemic requires us all to rally our communication forces and educate the population at the same – or in fact, higher – rate than that at which the virus spreads.
* Dr Ahluwalia is the CEO of Higher Health. Higher Health is dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of nearly two million students in the post-school system across South Africa.