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Communication professionals can save lives from Covid-19

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Lenox Mhlanga

ZIMBABWEAN President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a Level Four lockdown in the face of a raging third wave at the end of June.

There was a blowback when the rumours started swirling around about a possible hard lockdown. Even as the numbers of those infected are increasing, people are still in denial.

The localised lockdown declared for Kwekwe district should have served as a warning. Most of Mashonaland West and Bulawayo followed as epicentres of the third wave. However, another outbreak of a different kind hovered ominously.

The rise of what the World Health Organisation (WHO) calls a huge “infodemic” or “disinfodemic”, which creates challenges for the public to access reliable information when they require it, has been one of the major effects of the global pandemic.

The informative and educative roles of the public relations profession have become crucial. Communication professionals should take the lead in disseminating information about the pandemic, as well as the vaccination campaigns.

The real challenge is how communicators can add value by playing a critical role in communicating and changing negative perceptions about Covid-19 and the vaccination programme.

Compass, a resource for social and behavioural change practitioners, says that falsehoods and misinformation have proven deadly and sown confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices.

According to a study by the City University of London, the wave of misinformation contributes to an information overload that can crowd out important information. On the internet, volumes of increasingly conflicting information confront citizens. This demands a greater effort by them to navigate and compete for audiences’ finite attention span.

A paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that disinformation threatens the efficacy of and compliance with the emergency measures being enacted against the coronavirus.

“It additionally poses challenges to the economic and social recovery. The polarisation and distrust that derive from it have long-lasting negative implications for government action, democracy, and inclusive growth,” the OECD says.

Unesco has acknowledged its impact by publishing briefings on the disinfodemic. They note that Covid-19 has led to a parallel pandemic of disinformation that directly affects lives and livelihoods around the world. The United Nations agency is already working with journalists worldwide in combating disinformation.

The UN agency has identified themes associated with disinformation about Covid-19 and its impact. These range from false information about the origins, spread, infection and mortality rates to symptoms and treatments. They include content designed to defraud, with political attacks on journalists and misrepresentation of credible independent journalism as fake news.

“The formats used to disseminate pandemic-related disinformation include highly emotive narrative constructs and memes; fabricated, fraudulently altered, or decontextualised images and videos; bogus websites, data sets and sources; and disinformation infiltrators and orchestrated campaigns,” Unesco says in its policy brief ‘Disinfodemic – Dissecting responses to Covid-19 disinformation.’

Communicators play a complementary role to journalists in ensuring that the public gets the most accurate information. The first line of defence is debunking false and unverified claims and stories that gain traction online.

They ensure that the protection of the integrity of any information that leaves their desks and the organisations that they represent or work for assured. The communication department must be the go-to resource for verified information about the epidemic in organisations.

They should take the lead through monitoring, fact-checking and crafting investigative responses aimed at identifying, debunking, and exposing Covid-19 disinformation.

It is the responsibility of those in communication to use the tools at their disposal to research and fact-check on all the claims that reach their confines. There are credible fact-checking websites that are at everyone’s disposal.

Zimbabwe has a fact-checking website, Zimfact.org. ZimFact is a non-partisan, information fact-checking platform founded on the principles of impartiality and independence and provides accurate, fair and balanced information for the benefit of the public. It subscribes to international best practices in fact-checking and operates on the principles of impartiality and transparency.

Other fact-checking platforms available online include the Washington Post Fact checker, FactCheck.org and Snopes. Communication practitioners can also access governance-based responses, including law and policy, and state-based counter-disinfodemic responses.

The false narratives against vaccination are a threat to achieving herd immunity. They are without a solid basis and continue to carry currency because they compete for space on mainstream platforms. This is the terrain where practitioners hold sway through media relations. They have the power to change and control the narrative for the common good.

Practitioners should play watchdog inside and outside the boundaries of their organisations. We should promote whistleblowing on individuals and organisations that are exploiting the public during the pandemic from an ethical standpoint.

A good example is a revelation that some local laboratories are exploiting the public by charging astronomical fees for Covid-19 tests and making a killing from imported kits subsidised by the government. That puts an unwelcome spotlight on practitioners working for such organisations.

The key here is for communicators to not only expose unethical practice but also shore up public communication as part of the vanguard that tackles disinformation both inside and outside organisations.

The OECD has identified selected practices that can serve as a guide for practitioners assisting public authorities to tackle disinformation.
These include:

  • Communicating with timeliness and consistency
  • Making communication participatory
    Pre-empting and correcting disinformation
  • Basing interventions on evidence
  • Communicating Transparently
  • Adopting a strategic approach to communication
  • Let us enshrine these practices within professional practice. They also fit in the role assigned to communicators in the National Development Strategy (NDS 1) 2021-2025 of creating an informed society.

The challenge is for communicators to step up to the plate and do what is right in an environment where millions of lives are at stake. The fight against disinformation is a fight for our very lives that are at stake.

*About the writer: Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga is a strategic communications specialist and runs Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique communications consultancy. Call: +263 772 400 656 and write to [email protected]

 

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