Friday, December 4, 2020
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Covid-19: Hit by an Infodemic

Today’s digital age has ensured that a mountain of information subsumes us. While some of it can empower us, unscientific material can derail the very fight against Covid-19. By S Narendra

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The WHO chief recently described Covid-19, which has laid nations low and desperate, as an “Infodemic”. It means that there is a lot of information out there about the epidemic, most correct and useful, but a sizeable portion that is fake and unscientific. The latter, without timely correction, could derail the fight against the epidemic. In this digital age of speedy transmission, scientific information that could empower people to protect themselves and their close ones against the epidemic criss-crosses the unscientific. Scientific information of the former variety is the first line of defence in our fight.

Covid-19 that surfaced in China late last year is baffling medical scientists who are in a race to find a cure and a vaccine. Even for the scientifically inclined and others who are literate, it has become difficult to digest the mountain of information that is building up by the minute. Unfortunately, there is also political content in the air that is polluting the scientific information. WHO and governments are caught in this web.

The initial core messages emanating from governments and health experts, one would think, have largely succeeded in communicating the threat from the epidemic and the basic but vital protective steps needed to be taken by individuals and the community. The lockdown and threat of coercion in case of failure to comply with steps like staying home and maintaining social distance in public spaces have brought home the message.

My generation has seen epidemics like the plague, cholera and typhoid. The former two had vaccines and I have had the personal experience of big needles jabbing the shoulder, which would then swell and throb with pain for days. Entry to most big melas and temple events depended upon visitors carrying the vaccination certificate. Municipal workers used to visit houses to pump “cyno gas” into rat holes in the walls. All three epidemics had visited my family.

There was no medicine or vaccine for typhoid when I went down with it in the early 1940s. The much-dreaded smallpox was around too. Every year, our entire family would go and offer “cool” items (green coconut, sherbet, cucumber, etc) to the Mariamman (Kali) temple and pray for us to be saved from the fiery infection. Covid-19 is, perhaps, taking us back to the early part of the last century. The most important difference is that nations and governments did not have to cope with the prevailing “Info­demic” facilitated by the information highway and the mobile phone. A global epidemic like Covid-19 has to come up with different levels of communication. One is common global protocol for prevention of the spread. The other is adjusting the universal message to the local situation that is dynamic.

In the case of India, the first set of messages such as “washing one’s hands with soap” was helpful in underscoring this healthy habit. But most audio-visual messages have tended to show washing with water that runs out of a tap. Now this is a luxury for most households. As we enter the dry, hot season, even access to drinking water has become scarce in many places. The use of sanitisers is not an option either.

A reality check will show that even “social distancing” in an over-crowded, poor country like ours is unattainable even in a dream. Alternatively, the need to protect one’s near and dear ones from infection by covering one’s mouth and nose needs more emphasis. The sense of one’s liability has to be brought upfront. Besides endorsement of such visual messages by celebrities with credibility, ordinary householders can do so too in varying circumstances. This could go to strengthen the liability issue.

As said before, the government and people have to deal with a very dynamic situation. In a lockdown, it is possible to enforce clinical norms. Even in such a situation, one has seen innumerable breaches by highly visible political figures and in religious events. The impunity with which such breaches have occurred dilutes the seriousness of the messages. The big challenge comes while calibrating the opening up of the economy and society for usual commerce. It would be ideal if the remaining period of the lockdown is utilised for stressing that jobs, incomes and businesses can come back only when and if the concerned people follow the “new normal behaviour” at all times and places without exception. Exemplary enforcement by authorities, supported by forming relevant local people’s committees, could work. The governments at the centre and in states need to work with businesses in designing and communicating sector-specific messages about the “new normal” rules and regulations.

Building up social pressure through messaging is important. It is necessary to dispel the illusion that the epidemic will go away very soon and prepare the people for the long haul. Returning to life as before the lockdown could be a work in progress during the decade of the 2020s. A crucial aspect of communication is instilling confidence in the efforts of authorities to control the epidemic’s spread and establishing the government’s sincerity in mitigating the hardship experienced by every section of society. In this respect, the leaders of New Zealand, Germany, Singapore and the mayor and governor of New York have come out on top. Eschewing the compulsions of competitive politics of democracy in the face of the deadly epidemic would greatly add to the credibility of messaging. Even in the wealthy nations, such as the US and the UK, the clash of political egos has cost avoidable loss of lives to the epidemic. It has to be noted that no communication would work as long as it is not preceded by adequate steps to meet the widespread hunger caused by the economic dislocation.

—The writer is former information adviser to the PM

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