Are We Doing Enough to Tackle the Covid-19 Infodemic?

By David Kyne

March 29, 2020

March 29, 2020 – Back on February 15th, well before we entered the pandemic phase of the Covid-19 emergency, Dr. Tedros, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke about the window of opportunity the world had to tackle Covid-19 and outlined key actions nation states needed to consider. Dr. Tedros encouraged government preparedness and international unity and also warned that we will need to push back against the “infodemic”, which is defined as an excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult. He noted that fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is equally as dangerous. He called on governments, companies and news organizations to work with the WHO to sound the appropriate level of alarm, without fanning the flames of hysteria.

So where are we six weeks later, in tackling the infodemic?

  • We have been introduced to new terminology like “physical distancing,” “self-isolation” and “cocooning”
  • Other more striking language like “lock-down” and “shelter-in-place” is being used to reflect national and local government ordinances
  • We have also been introduced to some specific behavioural messages that accompany some of the official direction surrounding these interventions, including: stay home, wash hands and keep a safe distance from each other

Then there is the other news we are being bombarded with. The news surrounding who should get tested and how, testing delays or shortages, the symptoms of Covid-19 and potential treatments, highlighted most recently by the confusion surrounding the use of malaria medicines like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The news is coming at us from official government briefings, traditional and online media sources, footballers, actors, celebrities, and of course from our friends, family, colleagues and own social spheres. On top of this, we have the sustained coverage of the situation in countries outside of where we live being dissected and the ticker symbols and banners underscoring the damage to the global and local economies. Our video chats with family, friends and colleagues are dominated by related news and stories — and that’s not even counting all of the social media GIFs and memes, light-hearted photos as well as conspiracy theories that are circulating. Covid-19 conversations trending daily across all social platforms, with platforms doing their best to point people to authoritative sources when users search for this type of content to help stop the spread of misinformation. With more time immersed in our virtual worlds, Covid-19 news and information leads to information overload and message fatigue.

Information Overload

Many of us are now rationing our Covid-19 information to daily updates or blocking it out altogether, with many think pieces being published across the web recommending this strategy to help manage mental health. While that might translate into not watching the news on a loop as we once were, it is doubtful that we are completely separated from the infodemic itself, and we run the risk of missing critical developments or guidance. We are more likely wrapped up in it and perpetuating it.

Differing Responses and information Needs by Country

Adding to the complexity of the infodemic is the fact that the response to the Covid-19 pandemic varies depending on where you live:

  • Will European democracies like Ireland, Spain or Italy be able to enforce the kind of societal shut down seen in parts of China or South Korea?
  • Is a lockdown in the U.S. the same as a lockdown in France, where residents need to carry paperwork to leave their home?
  • Whatever the approach in your country is, what information accompanies the directives and do they adequately influence behaviour?

Finally, how is this information interpreted in contexts where practising “physical distancing” or hand washing may not be practical or possible? If you contract malaria for example, you may be presenting with symptoms similar to Covid-19, but “self-isolating” and not seeking treatment could prove to be fatal

Dissemination of Accurate Information Does Not Equal Behaviour Change

We have seen good examples of practical actions people can take to reduce their risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19 – from staying home to regular hand-washing. These behaviours are being adhered to by many millions of people, but serious gaps remain. At the end of the day, we live in an information world where “trusted sources” are not always governments, global health bodies, or even traditional media sources. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the airwaves, TV, Internet and public places were filled with messages about stopping Ebola.” These messages came from every source imaginable, but the sources that really mattered when it came to behaviour change were  local, familiar and respected individuals, like religious and traditional leaders. We can do a better job of ensuring that information being shared for Covid-19 is designed to change behaviour, and is delivered by appropriate messengers.

What Do We Still Need to Tackle the Covid-19 Infodemic?

There remains a gap between what official sources like WHO, governments and national health bodies are sharing and what the public is absorbing and sharing with their networks. The infodemic risks more people tuning out and not taking the appropriate measures to mitigate further spread of the virus. As health communicators, it is our responsibility to help provide a bridge between the official informers and the on-the-ground information consumers, in a way that leads to true behaviour change. This information needs to be tailored to local contexts, delivered by trusted messengers and via channels that the public already uses to consume information. Until we pay stronger attention to how guidance around Covid-19 is delivered, we cannot stop this pandemic in its tracks.