An army of youth myth-busters: Curbing the viral threat to public health communications

To de-stigmatise Covid-19, youth must be galvanised into an army of myth-busters

23 May 2020 - 11:41 By RAMNEEK AHLUWALIA
Health workers wearing personal protective gear perform mouth swabs for the testing of Covid-19 in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg on April 13.
Health workers wearing personal protective gear perform mouth swabs for the testing of Covid-19 in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg on April 13.

After SA’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.

The government’s swift, transparent, multisectoral response and respect for health expert advice has been compared to that of Taiwan and Singapore. Many presumed that these Asian countries would be worst-hit due to their proximity and trade ties with China yet they have effectively managed to contain the outbreak.

Our government is managing several challenges at the same time. The most critical is 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 Organisation (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 the 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. The peculiarity of this crisis forces government communicators to balance creative and practical ways to educate their constituencies. Targeted communication tailored for particular groups becomes crucial.

A case in point: to effect a youth-focused approach to help flatten the curve, creating awareness and promoting education could prove beneficial in a country like SA.

Africa has the largest youth population globally, and locally, Stats SA's 2019 midyear 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, after 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 cyberspace, 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, which also happens to be the so-called problematic space in this infodemic.

Youth myth-busters
COVID-19 Youth myth-busters
Image: Nolo Moima

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.

Government fostering symbiotic relationships with community media in particular, and using youth as a resource to drive educational campaigns would be a strategic move and strike at the heart of myth-mongering.

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 microsite as a designated repository of information.

To maximise on reach and effectiveness of the portal, all SA websites have been asked to host access to the coronavirus resource portal.

To be young means the freedom to be, to socialise, travel, and engage with the outside world. In the absence of these basic civil liberties, perhaps we should be granting our youth some responsibility and activating their agency during this time as we collectively work towards a solution to this crisis.

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, SA 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.