This is a guest post from Ben Bellows, PhD (UC Berkeley, epidemiology), currently a researcher at the Population Council in Washington DC and a co-founder and the Chief Business Officer at Nivi Inc., a digital health company empowering consumers in emerging markets. Nivi is supporting the COVID-19 response here.
Disease outbreaks are as much a social phenomenon as a biological one. Rumor, innuendo, and public sentiment drive disease transmission dynamics. Covid-19 is no different; the fact checking website, Snopes.com, has a dedicated “covid-19” tag to run the equivalent of public health containment and mitigation on misinformation.
As the World Health Organization reported 2nd February, this pandemic, similar to past epidemics like SARS in 2003 when the term was coined, risks spawning an “infodemic” that exacerbates disease control and treatment efforts (e.g. there is no high quality evidence that hydroxychloroquine leads to significant improvements in COVID-19 outcomes, drinking hot water will not kill the virus, and this video does not show mass COVID-19 graves in Italy).
Drawing lessons from the 2013-16 West
Africa Ebola epidemic, we already see health authorities trying to balance
centralized mechanisms to promote consistent and high quality messaging with
decentralized programmatic communication that is flexible and adaptable to
local needs, as Gillespie and colleagues recommended post-Ebola.
As a part of the global response, on March 20th, the WHO and Facebook launched a WhatsApp chat bot and resource page to improve information quality, allowing anyone with access to WhatsApp to learn more about coronavirus and receive updates. This proactive strengthening of health authority messaging pairs well with effective efforts to weaken transmission of misinformation on social media platforms (e.g. YouTube has a 24-hour incident-response team to remove misinformation and Facebook partnered with the International Fact Checking Network awarding grants to fact check Coronavirus misinformation).
National governments and corporate partners have also launched digital messaging services including in India, Kenya, and South Africa. These messaging services, and similar web platforms the US CDC Coronavirus Self-Checker, convey consistent and vetted health information intended to inform citizens and empower healthy decisions.
Next phase in pandemic response
Anticipating the next step in the
COVID-19 response, digital health companies are launching consumer-facing
COVID-19 messaging for specific populations. One company that I co-founded in
2016, Nivi, began to develop messaging after noticing
an uptick of in-bound questions from its users.