The Financial Express

Role of social media in raising pandemic related awareness

-Reuters file photo -Reuters file photo

It has been already 1.5 years since we are going through the COVID-19 pandemic which was first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December 2019. WHO declared the situation a public health emergency. We do not know how long we have to deal with it and when it will end. To live with this pandemic, we need to learn how to manage our lives to deal with the risk of COVID, we have to gain knowledge and maintain protocols of some health hygiene including social distancing. Wearing mask is a must to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. But a large number of the population is reluctant to wear mask though the government made it mandatory for all to wear masks outdoors and attempted to incentivise it by declaring "No Mask No Service" rule. 

However, to address the unwillingness of people to wear mask during the pandemic, public awareness should be raised. A comprehensive awareness-raising programme for maintaining health protocols and wearing mask is necessary to contain widespread infections. In this regard,  use of mass media as well as the internet and social media could be useful tools to raise awareness among the general people to learn and understand the seriousness of the outbreak and their role and responsibility in reducing community transmission of COVID-19.

Not only for raising the awareness among the people, on online and social media-based survey information is important for researchers, too, to understand various aspects of the pandemic,  This has been possible because the history of the 21st century is perhaps the history of the rise of social media and computer technologies that allow collaborative creation and sharing of information. Social media data thus have been proved useful to analyse the public concern about the disease outbreak.

Historically, social media has become a potentially useful tool for the effective communication of various Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) outbreaks such as SARS, MARS, Ebola virus etc. (see Neuman et al, 2014). The public often relies on both traditional media and social media for information as the public does not know about the unusual risk associated with EIDs (Freberg, Palenchar, and Veil 2013). These studies highlighted the fact that the way these EIDs are portrayed and communicated in media, shapes people's perceptions of risks, which in turn have a significant impact on their decision-making process and risk management behaviours.

During the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak in 2013, social media played an instrumental role in informing the public and consequent decision-making process (Biswas, 2013). Ranjan et al.(2015) critically evaluate YouTube videos as a source of information for Ebola virus. The authors showed that the majority of the internet videos about Ebola on YouTube were very helpful. However, they conclude that more efforts and filtering processes are necessary to disseminate scientifically correct information on YouTube to prevent unnecessary panic among the general population. Mass communication media are thus valuable resources for efficiently communicating risk information to the public. However, extensive collaboration among public health departments and media outlets is essential to deliver health information to all sectors of society.

Apart from the usefulness of social media's role in disseminating important information about infectious disease outbreaks, some studies focused on students' awareness about the disease outbreaks. For example, Bergeron and Sanchez (2005) conducted a study a few months after the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak and sampled a particular sector of the population, young students attending a university in southern Ontario, Canada. They have found that though students have access to and use different forms of media, the internet is most used followed by television and radio.  Students' knowledge about the cause, transmission, symptoms associated with SARS was very low for this population except for those with health majors. However, internet use seemed to have increased baseline SARS knowledge. Finally, the authors concluded that for a young population that prefers the internet, this medium could be a great tool for delivering health messages to them.  

During the covid-19 pandemic, online platform has become very popular among the people throughout the world not only for information searching but also for "working from home" and doing business leading an enormous growth of E/F-commerce. In Bangladesh, people in most cases rely on internet-based social media to know the infection-related information, preventive measures, testing and treatment of the Covid-19 pandemic as the healthcare facilities are not up-to-the-mark to be reached out effectively. The development of a mechanism to obtain more authentic information and filtering out fake news/information is necessary to make social media more useful for people.

In Bangladesh, the use of mass media is limited to improve health communication. Shabuj Chaya was a weekly TV drama serial that was a part of behaviour change communication programme conducted in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh and health programme partners.

Such types of entertainment-education drama format can be used to improve health-related knowledge and behaviour change related issues, particularly mask wearing and maintaining social distance during the pandemic. This approach could be useful in disseminating appropriate pandemic related health information to the widest possible audience. Traditional mass media, social media and the internet only help to disseminate pandemic-related information. Now at this stage of the pandemic, educating and motivating people who are reluctant to use masks and follow other health hygiene norms requires systematic and effective use of communication channels and techniques. Different techniques should be applied for different communities based on their social, cultural, educational, and economic status. For example, the young community who are found reluctant to wear musk should be encouraged to participate Mask Wearing Awareness Campaign as well as in the free mask distribution programme among the extreme poor. To change some communities (such as:  slum people or extreme poor people as well as people living in the rural areas) perception that this 'COVID 19 will not do anything to them', policy maker should use Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) approach, which uses a variety of appropriate communication channels to motivate the community. Local political and social workers/leaders as well as religious workers/leaders should be involved in the pandemic awareness building programmes.

 Finally, Behaviour Change Communication through social media and other media would be very useful in containing widespread transmission of the coronavirus, and the government should work in this direction partnering with private sectors.


Farhana Rafiq is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Economics, American International University--Bangldesh (AIUB).

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