By Richard Baguma – Coordinator, Uganda Health Communication Alliance
The struggle to roll back the onslaught of COVID-19 must tackle fake news which is fueling excessive fear of the disease.
The rampant fear-mongering circulated especially through social media threatens to drown out the objective messaging about the pandemic.
Although COVID-19 poses grave health and economic concerns, a considerable amount of the dread associated with the pandemic is driven by misinformation and disinformation.
Enormous amounts of information have been generated as a result of the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the first global “infodemic”. Some of the information is accurate but unfortunately the other is not! It is difficult therefore for many people to know what to believe and what not to. This uncertainty provides a perfect recipe for fear and confusion.
Although access to information in this era of modern technology is unprecedented, the world is paradoxically inundated by fake news.
Globally, Coronavirus which was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 11th of March 2020, has claimed over tens of thousands of lives with cases rising towards millions.
For Uganda, although no death has been registered yet, the number of infected has risen to 53 since the first case was confirmed.
There is therefore bound to be panic among the general population that the outbreak can engulf the whole country and swamp the already struggling health system. The recurring media headlines highlighting inadequate testing facilities at hospitals is an ominous pointer to a crisis that may befall the country if cases increase.
Instituting effective crisis communication measures that include tackling fake news is increasingly crucial to dealing with the widespread fear. Although this may be difficult to implement in such an infodemic, it has to be done. It is an important cornerstone in the race to reverse the pandemic.
Government, which is the principal duty bearer, as well as professionals must seize the opportunity and utilize traditional and social media platforms to churn out correct, persuasive and updated information. They are obligated to strategically position themselves as credible sources of timely information. The public can then have confidence in their explanations, follow their guidance and restore calmness.
President Museveni consistently addressing the nation live on air has been very useful in drawing crucial attention to the disease and clarifying the basis for the stringent government interventions to control the spread of the virus. It also gives confidence to the population that the crisis is being tackled at the highest level.
The daily media briefings by government ministers and relevant technocrats as well as the regular social media updates are a good example of what needs to be done. Besides, the quick responses by the communication teams of the health ministry and the institutions that constitute the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force are commendable. Kudos to all the teams!
The examples above illustrate the importance of communicating effectively in times of a crisis such as this Coronavirus pandemic. These communication initiatives must rigorously respond to the numerous cases of fake news characterized by lies and exaggerations.
Disseminating factual information in a timely manner using trusted messengers through recognized media is vital for building trust and fighting fear. Openness, simplicity, honesty even when the situation is grim and investing in efforts to assuage fear are important components of the communication arsenal in the war against COVID-19 related fake news.
Taking leadership of the communication function and making pro-active moves to take charge of the story as the outbreak evolves are necessary right from the start. Carefully balanced information, characterized by empathy and sensitivity has to be a key consideration for COVID-19 related communication by government and professionals.