With the introduction of powerful communication tools capable of spreading news and information globally within seconds, communication is increasingly emerging as one of the most challenging aspects to manage in public health. On Scienza in Rete website, Ernesto Carafoli and Enrico Bucci discuss an urgent issue, namely the information hypertrophy to which we are exposed: information that is often difficult to verify, and which find in social networks and increasingly accelerated information modes a considerable driving force. Just think of the about 2 million tweets containing conspiracy theories on the coronavirus that were published between January and February, according to a report by the Washington Post.
So, while the World Health Organization (WHO) is working tirelessly to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic, many communication experts and scientists are reporting another epidemic, that of misinformation, which is called an infodemic. The term is introduced by the WHO itself – then taken up by the international press – in its Situation Report nCoV. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the Safety Conference in Munich on 15 February,
We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic,
precisely to indicate the possible serious damage to public – and global – health that may be caused by incorrect or false information. The WHO risk communication team has launched a new information platform called the WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN), with the aim of sharing “tailor-made” information with specific target groups.
As Sylvie Briand, director of infectious risk management at the WHO Health Emergency Programme and architect of WHO’s strategy to combat infectious risk, says on the Lancet,
So it’s not just about information to make sure people are informed, it’s also about making sure people are informed to act appropriately.
In 2005 the WHO published the Outbreak Communication Guidelines, recognising that communication expertise has become as essential for epidemic control as epidemiological training and laboratory testing. These are some of the most important points recognised by the WHO:
- Trust: it is the cornerstone of emergency communication. Research shows that public mistrust of public health officials makes it less likely that the public will follow instructions on how to manage epidemics. And it is important that trust also exists between policy makers, communicators and technical staff to ensure coordination.
- There must be no gaps between information: the more information we hold back, the more anxious people will be. It is better that the competent authority releases information as soon as possible, however worrying it may be, to give legitimacy to actions and reduce public panic.
- Transparency: this will only lead to greater confidence on the part of people if the measures imposed appear justified in the context in which they are taken.
- Dialogue with the public: messages to people should include specific information that they can use to make themselves less vulnerable; this will give a sense of power and control over personal health and safety, leading to greater adoption of instructions for managing epidemics.
In an era when we are anxious to communicate (and to be the first to do so), we should remember that comunicare, from the Latin, means sharing: during this epidemic, whose end we do not see for now, we could take the opportunity to restore meaning to the common and the community.