History has shown us what a strong impact pandemics can have upon not only health but the economy as well and whilst this isn’t the first pandemic in the social media age it is certainly the most prominent of them. Swine flu, Ebola and the Zika outbreak was also widely documented and had a significant influence on social media conversations. However, the Corona conversation feels different, perhaps because it has had a more immense impact upon the public or more likely because we understand this time around how significant social media can be in the dissemination of information. Information exchange has become instantaneous and has created a means to communicate with the masses in moments such as these. In 1918, Influenza affected over one-third of the world’s population and the only tools at authorities’ disposal were the telephone, mail, or person-to-person interaction.
A century later we are facing another global pandemic although this time around we have the technology to educate people. With over 2.9 billion people using social media the reach we now have is immeasurable however we can be smarter in the way social media is used in times of need. Using social media to its full potential to support emergency responses, to educate and prepare people can not only manage but transform situations like the one we are currently in. By integrating social media into the response system, government and health authorities can ensure all measures are being undertaken to stop the spread.
Correct Information during the Covid-19 Crisis
This is an unprecedented pandemic and as 2020 arrived the outbreak of the virus caused international panic across the globe. With this panic, understandably, came a demand for information. Health care organisations, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as numerous journals, have been regularly updating their social platforms to converse with the public. Furthermore, behind the scenes, there are teams of people involved in responding to the thousands of searches for information about the virus.
Facebook is directing people through the news feed tool to the WHO website. Whilst Google Scholar is placing an emphasis on leading medical journals. Likewise, Twitter is directing the concerned public to only reliable sources like healthcare organisations, WHO and medical journals. Whilst all of this is admirable, perhaps the time has come for social media to step up even further.
Banners, pop-ups, and various other tools should be used to inform social media users with updates, new policies and regulations an example of this is social distancing and transport regulations. Further, social media influencers, healthcare organisations and clinicians have a social responsibility to direct their followers and patients to only trusted sources. If the public choose to get their information off of social media rather than reputable sources like WHO, at least this ensures a consistent message across the platforms.
Unfortunately in the midst of this pandemic, we are seeing a spree of misinformation across all media platforms. Some information deliberately misleading and some coming from unreliable sources which only adds to the fear and confusion. The 2019 Covid pandemic has been described as an infodemic by WHO with an overwhelming amount of information circulating social media. By creating a higher level of understanding as to where the misinformation originates from and removing it we can become proactive in stopping the rapid spread of it.
Social Media as a Diagnostic Tool
We should be adapting with social media to inform potential patients of the virus, how, where and when to get tested, and what they should do once they receive their results. With health care systems overloaded this is the safest way for patients with milder symptoms to get assessed and determine the appropriate action. Furthermore if a vaccine becomes available it is the safest way to disseminate that information. Currently, Facebook has a tool called Preventative health which issues the user with vetted health guidelines and then directs potential patients to geo-targeted locations, where the needed services are available. This is only available in the US at the present time and the benefits of opening this up to other countries could create tremendous groundwork. There is also the option to share results with your contacts. With these targeted measures it could be possible to use this tool for the COVID-19 pandemic and inform the diagnosed patients’ contacts.
Enabling Connectivity and Psychological First Aid
As terms like “social distancing” “isolation” and “quarantine” become a part of our daily vocabulary, our day to day social activities have become severely limited. Funerals, weddings, religious services, eat-in restaurant dining, walks and gyms have become obsolete in the face of a pandemic. Social isolation will no doubt begin to affect our mental health and in this challenging time it is a difficult path to navigate especially for the already disadvantaged. The elderly, disabled and low socio-economic individuals in particular. We can use social media to connect and raise awareness for these specific groups when physical contact is not an able tool. AI and chat boxes are a fantastic tool for psychological support and could be utilized more effectively to do a safety check and discover what these individuals need in this hard time. It is important to remember that social media does not replace one on one contact but can act as an intermediate tool whilst there is need.
Examining how the virus will have knock-on effects for the education of our health care professions is an imperative part of integrating social media. Clinical training, laboratory skills and much more will suffer as we move to isolation and social distancing. Video conferences are great but most likely systems will be overwhelmed as lessons move entirely online. Social media can be utilised to facilitate active learning for medical students and certainly for practicing doctors who are providing care for COVID-19 patients. They can benefit from a platform set up to solely share experiences and research amongst each other. Education should not suffer and whilst we have seen some fast adaptations in the past weeks from face to face learning to online it is clear our education system was not prepared for the enormity of the current situation.
Currently Facebook is making some amazing moves, providing researchers with aggregated and anonymized data of how people are moving from location to location. This is done to understand how and where the virus is spreading. However more can be done. We can use social media data for various symptoms, interactions, photos at events, various travel routes taken and any other digital footprints that are available to us, to look at the trajectory of the virus. Further, we can combine medical records with social media data, this can help identify potential individuals at risk.
Social media is an unstoppable force especially in the face of a global crisis. History has shown us time and time again the importance of how information is disseminated and integrating social media into our response is an integral part in fighting the current and future crises.
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