New technologies for action in a pandemic context

With over 571 678 confirmed cases globally, which means an increase of 62 514 cases from the previous day, and a total of 26 494 deaths by March 28th, 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 68 Situation Report, Coronavirus disease has paralyzed the world, including lockdown of large populations, quarantine, frozen of flight services and the collapse of health facilities in the most affected countries. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by WHO on 30 January 2020.

The danger that this virus portraits has raised up the fear of populations across the globe, fueling a huge demand for information. ICTs has become a resourceful source of information for communities everywhere in the world. In the mist of the overwhelming amount of information that circulates in the Internet, particularly in social media, rumors and not verified information have flourished. Efforts by governments and WHO have been put into place to satisfy the need for accurate and verified information.

Source: World Health Organization, 2020

 

Some websites and mobile apps have got records of downloads, showing the importance that ICT4D has reached to communicate in an emergency setting, the development of the pandemic, providing timely and reliable information to the affected population at the intersection of ICT, development and transformative process (Maung et al., 2019).

Some of these apps are getting so popular that they target one million downloads in 24 hours. This is the case of Covid Symptom Tracker, that brings to the audience insights to track the symptoms of the disease, providing some basic information (Wakefield J., 2019). The app achieved the target, being downloaded both for Android and iOS phones over a million times.

However, experts warn people about a conscious selection of applications and information to consult regarding health advice. This may be the case of the of COVID-19 Self-Test. WHO advises to consult always a health worker for any health advice.

Other mobile apps and websites aiming at informing on the updated number of COVID-19 cases by country have also become very popular. These are the cases of the World Meter and the Covid Visualizer. The last one was developed by students at Carnegie Mellon University, to provide an appealing and interactive way to visualize the impact of COVID-19.

 

Risk Communication approach

WHO has launched Epi-Win, an information portal dedicated to epidemics information for targeted audiences to prevent misinformation and provide useful guidance and tools, such as myth busters, visual educational materials and regular updates. According to the mandate described in its website, “EPI-WIN seeks to give everyone access to timely, accurate, and easy-to-understand advice and information from trusted sources on public health events and outbreaks: currently the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

This facility segments the information providing relevant information to the target groups more affected by COVID-19: individuals and communities, travel and tourism sector, health sector, employers and workers, faith-based organizations and faith leaders, large event organizers and countries.

 

WHO health advice video: 7 tips to reduce the risk of Coronavirus

 

The portal is part of a most comprehensive initiative: The Health Emergencies Risk Communication in approach.

This approach has been conceived within the context of Development Communication, with particular focus on Emergency situations. In this case, Communication becomes not only an essential tool for development (Enghel, 2013), but also a technical component within the Incident Management System (IMS). This is the standardized structure adopted internationally to manage the response to public health events and emergencies, included in the Humanitarian Programme Cycle defined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

The IASC cluster structure, includes Risk Communication and Community Engagement as an essential sub-function, in relation to the Transformative Agenda protocols, and the more recent Grand Bargain and New Way of Working.

“This sub-function assesses the social and cultural context of populations at risk, engages stakeholders at national and local levels, develops tailored and targeted messages for dissemination, ensuring that they are technically sound and socio-culturally appropriate, and conducts rapid surveys and other assessments to determine the barriers to adopting health advice. It delivers health messages using the most effective means preferred by the target population in local languages and monitors their effectiveness. The sub-function also builds risk communications and community engagement capacities in-country and coordinates key international and national partners.”

WHO Emergency Framework Response Handbook (p.48)

 

Thus, Risk Communication is understood as a critical component in the emergency response and it requires technical expertise that works interlinked with the main clusters of the IMS, such as Health, Shelter, Protection, Food Security and others.

Incident Management System
Incident Management System

Source: United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2018

 

Likewise, Risk Communication is one of the eight core functions of the International Health Regulations (2005). These regulations binding to all signatories are an essential step to prevent epidemics and pandemics, such as COVID-19.

Furthermore, a Guideline Development Group (GDG) comprised of external experts, both academic and practitioners, was constituted in 2015 to lead the development of the WHO guidance on emergency risk communication. The list of members is available here. The work of the group included a full review of bibliography and grey literature, concluding with the production of the WHO Guidance and the publication of Communicating risk in public health emergencies.

Some relevant actors in health emergencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Red Cross and the United Nations offers also online educational tools which can be useful for citizens in general, as well as health professionals, policy makers and emergency professionals. This is the case of the OpenWHO online training facility, which has released several Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) in several languages to provide quality educational material, both in Risk Communication and in COVID-19. (See previous post)

 

Rumors and ’Infodemics’

During an emergency crisis, access to the right information is not always easy. It is critical for stakeholders working in the response to provide safe and sustainable communication channels that will help affected communities to make quick decisions and work efficiently. ICT4D can help on this, offering privileged multidirectional communication channels, where feedback and interaction is much simple than in traditional media.

In addition, ICT4D can be a powerful awareness tool and contributes to democratize access to information and freedom of expression. Nevertheless, it can also facilitate the fast dissemination of rumors and biased or not fully verified information. There are concerns about whether the development created by the adoption of ICT is positive (Maung et al., 2019).

In this sense, WHO brought the concept of ‘Infodemics’, as an excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult. This is the case of COVID-19. Some rumors may encourage people to take wrong decisions and perform actions that may exacerbate the risk of the disease.

The Epi-Win portal is tracking those rumors and uploading the right information, thus everybody can have access to the right and scientific verified information.

Source: World Health Organization, 2020

 

Concluding reflections

The start of the New Media, ICT and Development course was coincidental with the spread of the COVID-19 disease and the evolution from an epidemic to a pandemic, affecting most countries in the world.

Other humanitarian crisis were affecting more developing countries. However, this shows than nobody is safe from disasters, including health outbreaks or climate hazards.

This global context, shaped the content of the post published, bringing the opportunity to share some reflections and good practices, from the perspective of someone working in the field.

The views in this blog are personal.

If you may want to know more facts about coronavirus: WHO

 

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