First came the pandemic followed by panic; then came the vaccine followed by vacillation.
The panic declined ahead of the deadly second wave, as there was what is called pandemic fatigue due to prolonged lockdowns, curfews and restrictions.
However, in today's unprecedented second wave, added to the tragic situation is the challenge of false information, twisted facts and mangled half-truths.
This has led to the 'Vaccine Conundrum.'
Fueled by false information, people have started wondering should I or should I not take the vaccine.
Misinformation concerning health has particularly severe consequences with regard to people's quality of life and even their lives itself; therefore, understanding it within today's modern context is an extremely important task.
Those familiar with the Mahabharata will remember the Ashwathama spin. Ashwathama, the elephant got killed in the battle, but Acharya Drona’s son also had the same name. So, when Drona asks Yudhishter, the upholder of truth, on whether Ashwathama was indeed killed, he says “Ashwathama was killed” and then after a pause he inaudibly adds “it may have been an elephant or a man”. The second part was not heard by Drona leading to his death.
Moral of the story: Listen to the full story, examine all the facts and then take a decision. Through social media, we listen to the first part but do not probe for the truth.
Hence, there's a need for 'Responsible Vaccination Communication which needs to be followed at multiple levels – the gatekeeper, elevator and accelerator:
1. The government is the gatekeeper as it is the most important stakeholder in the vaccination drive and protecting people. It is the source and the owner of the vaccine initiative. The government should become more proactive and clarify each and every myth.
Under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the government has powers to take special measures and prescribe regulations to check spread of false information that can aggravate or cause panic among the public with regard to a dangerous epidemic.
Social media platform holders should be roped in to flag false information.
The Prime Minister and the government-appointed experts should come forward and contribute to 'Responsible Vaccine Communication' in such dangerous times that we live in. The governments should also encourage startups to create apps wherein people can verify if the information being spread on the pandemic is true or false.
2. The elevators or boosters are the key opinion leaders.
Elevators can sometimes be destroyers if they are not careful in making the right statement backed by hard facts or releasing any sort of video on social media platforms.
3. The accelerator is the ubiquitous media. In times of crisis the media has an important role so to play. During a pandemic, the media should be very careful :
a) Only stories backed by credible scientific references should be used.
b) Selecting the right set of experts to get their quotes for a good/ informative story.
c) Never magnify a story that is under doubt.
With a tsunami of health information, people have started taking the ‘facts’ presented as ‘fiction’.
A study by Weber Shandwick has found that out of 1700 adults reached, ‘52% are concerned that today’s healthcare information is either false or misleading’!
This makes it all the more imperative to practice 'Responsible Vaccine Communication' (RVC).
RVC should include the RWA Module—R- Reference Check; W- When in Doubt, Cut it Out!; A- Avoid Sensationalization of Health Information:
- Reference check on the health info: Do a reference check on any information you get and what you forward; a simple Google search and referring to peer journals and credible media sources will help one get most of the answers.
- When in Doubt, Cut it Out. Do not spread any info if you are not sure.
-Avoid sensationalization and spreading doubtful studies as much as you can.
To avoid spread of misinformation or to get updated on what's right and what's wrong info, post a question on the Government’s website run effectively by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. This site has a huge pile of credible, authenticated Covid information and also a Q&A section where you can get answers to your questions from the Government-approved experts.
To reiterate, we are now going through the deadliest phase of the Covid pandemic. The virus has to be fought together – by the government, healthcare sector, including the private sector, and the public. Together, the three arms should weed out those trying to convert a tragedy for a few likes and shares on social media platforms.
Dr Swadeep Srivastava is founder of HEAL Health Group. HEAL is now in the process of creating a "Healthcare INFODEMIC Fact Checking Network" in collaboration with AIIMS, DY Patil, Makhan Lal Chaturvedi Universities & Experts from Indian Public Health Association (IPHA).