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We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Munich Security Conference, 15 February 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the world, so too has a major infodemic – an over-abundance of information. This information tsunami makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. Infodemics are not new phenomena: they occur in every outbreak. It already happened over a hundred years ago during the Spanish Flu pandemic. The speed and reach of today’s COVID-19 global infodemic are, however, unprecedented. The epidemic of misinformation is travelling much faster and further through social media platforms and other outlets than we have seen before. This poses a serious problem for public health since people need reliable information and guidance to know what actions to take, in order to protect themselves and others, and help mitigate the impact of the disease. By making people fearful and leading them to take fewer measures to effectively prevent disease transmission, the infodemic is hampering the public health response to the pandemic – if not worsening it.
Addressing the infodemic, therefore, presents a challenge in responding to disease outbreaks. But it is also an opportunity to adapt and find new preparedness and response tools. The infodemic can be arranged into four major thematic areas around which people look for trustworthy information and where misinformation and rumors are spread: (i) the cause and origin of the disease; (ii) the symptoms and transmission patterns of the disease; (iii) available treatment and cure; and (iv) rationale, effectiveness and impacts of interventions by health authorities or other institutions.
To manage this infodemic, WHO has developed an innovative initiative called the WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN). Using an evidence-based approach, EPI-WIN seeks to squeeze out misinformation through a high output of public health messages that inform individuals and populations on how to protect themselves and support outbreak control activities. In addition to developing public health information, WHO therefore not only explains the science and rationale behind control measures and its own guidance, but also tracks and responds to misinformation, myths and rumors that are known to be circulating.
Evidence-based information is discussed and shared with these external groups who adapt it to their audience and local context and amplify the dissemination.
EPI-WIN covers four strategic areas of work to respond to infodemics – (i) identifying, gathering and assessing real-time evidence to help form public health recommendations and policies; (ii) simplifying this knowledge into actionable and behavioral change messages; (iii) amplifying impact by reaching out to key stakeholders in communities with tailored advice and messages; and (iv) quantifying, monitoring and tracking the infodemic through social media technology platforms to guide the effectiveness of public health measures.
It applies a whole-of-society approach to infodemic management by identifying key “amplifiers” – which are trusted sources of information for key audiences such as the health, tourism, religious, travel, financial, business, food and agricultural sectors. Amplifiers may be individuals, umbrella organisations, representatives and employers who are engaged by EPI-WIN to disseminate life-saving public health messages to their networks. Evidence-based information is discussed and shared with these external groups who adapt it to their audience and local context and amplify the dissemination. Through regular amplifier engagement calls the EPI-WIN team listens to and discusses their information needs, and works with them to create appropriate messages and educational materials tailored to the audience.
Indeed, the scope of EPI-WIN’s potential reach through its amplification networks is significant. For example, over three billion people are in paid employment globally, and the International Trade Union confederation (ITUC) alone brings together affiliated trade union bodies that represent 210 million workers in 163 countries. In addition, with a majority of the world’s population identifying with a religious group, faith-based organisations can mobilise and inform billions of people of faith through their churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Similarly, EPI-WIN’s potential extends to the millions of frontline healthcare workers – the backbone of a country's defences to save lives and limit the spread of disease – as well as to home caretakers, who also play a frontline role when health systems become overstretched.
Managing the COVID-19 pandemic and the related infodemic requires swift, regular and co-ordinated action from multiple sectors of society and government.
Just last week, EPI-WIN convened a global consultation to fight the COVID-19 infodemic. Over 1,300 online participants attended this consultation and submitted 300 ideas that will form a WHO action plan to better manage the infodemic. Some of these actions will require the build-up and co-ordination of global efforts, but others have come forward with very concrete ways to help governments better communicate and address this phenomenon in the evolving pandemic.
Managing the COVID-19 pandemic and the related infodemic requires swift, regular and co-ordinated action from multiple sectors of society and government. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, ensuring the timely translation of evidence into actionable knowledge will continue to be crucial in fighting misinformation and saving lives.
For more information please see:
- Beyond Containment: Health systems responses to COVID-19 in the OECD
- Why open science is critical to combatting COVID-19
|Tackling COVID-19||Health||Post-truth||Privacy & Cybersecurity|
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