By Emmanuel Lubanzadio, Head of Public Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa – Twitter; and Elizabeth Ntonjira, Global Communication Director – Amref Health Africa
One year after COVID-19 began to sweep across the African continent the pandemic remains a thorn in the flesh of our collective existence, offering daily reminders of our mortality and bringing to the fore conversations about health that were previously relegated to the tail end of news bulletins.
Everywhere we turn is COVID-19 coverage, little of it positive. Dominating the news and social media discourse are updates on the pandemic’s deadly second or third wave (depending on where you are), its impact on fragile health systems and livelihoods across the continent, and debate about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine.
We say that information is power, and the Internet has been credited with giving unfettered access to information, 24 hours a day 365 days a year. But with great power comes great responsibility – and we must recognize the combined responsibilities of Government, private sector and civil society in promoting facts and information that help shape opinions beneficial to our health and well-being.
As COVID-19 infections continue to surge around the world, we must ramp up efforts to create connections between the custodians of truth and the public. This is especially critical as African governments roll out national COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, against the backdrop of rising vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.
We are at a critical moment in time, and history will judge us harshly if we do not use every tool at our disposal to counter health misinformation. Swift, coordinated, and targeted communication delivered through multiple channels is critical to ensure the safety of populations and bring an end to the pandemic.
This is a societal issue that requires a societal solution. To tackle misinformation, nothing can be done in isolation. Partnership between multiple actors across sectors is needed to bridge the gaps that exist between those creating messages and those consuming the information. Social media should be used more effectively to complement traditional media coverage, offering even more real-time updates that provide evidence-based information to build trust among a wary public.
Twitter, for example, has allocated significant resources and invested in various initiatives such as COVID-19 policy updates, public health campaigns and philanthropic projects in order to combat misinformation. The social media platform is working with different institutions, from governments to multilateral organizations, to amplify credible health information and connect audiences to public health experts.
In partnership with Amref Health Africa, Twitter is investing in enhancing media literacy skills through scholarships offered at the Amref International University, targeted at journalists from various African countries. The journalism course is aimed at equipping health reporters with the skills required to turn complex scientific information into compelling health narratives, and position health in political and socio-economic contexts in ways that serve the public interest.
Amref also continues to share critical information around the COVID-19 vaccine, consolidating and disseminating facts through the COVID-19 Africa Information Centre. The portal was launched soon after the onset of the pandemic to provide accurate information to internal and external stakeholders.
We must recognize the harm caused by allowing misinformation to thrive, and we must be unwavering in our efforts to provide vital public health information and facts. Each one of us has a responsibility to filter the information we consume and verify what we share. That’s why Twitter – alongside the enforcement of their COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy – is also providing users with more context and clarity by adding labels and warnings to tweets to help make it easier to find facts and make informed decisions.
This is not the time for half-hearted attempts at sharing vital health information; not when millions of lives are at stake.
As governments seek to vaccinate their populations against COVID-19, they must also work closely with health and communication experts to inoculate against misinformation, to spotlight authoritative facts delivered by trusted figures, drown out misleading content, and to empower people with the information they need to stay safe.