It may not be what people want to hear, but fighting a pandemic is complicated.
As coronavirus infections and cases of COVID-19 increase here at home and in countries worldwide, the need for effective countermeasures to fight the spread itself, and for reliable information to fight our confusion, anxiety, or skepticism about the spread, is paramount.
Government ministries and public health agencies here in Canada have been providing information at in-person, near-daily press briefings; through official pronouncements and press releases; and across the media landscape, with websites, radio and TV commercials, and social engagement. Other platforms may be considered with no clear signs that the pandemic is letting up.
As important as the official sources may be, there still can be a need for options and alternatives, especially if those options are focused on getting reliable and credible information to specific audiences and target groups who may not otherwise be well-served.
As just one example, the homeless. And in particular, young people who find themselves on the street, without a solid base, having perhaps run away from home or dropped out of school.
An organization called PEACH (Palliative Education and Care for the Homeless) operates in Toronto, and palliative-care physician Dr. Naheed Dosani is a lead doctor with the project. He uses platforms like TikTok and Instagram to reach a younger audience and share information about the pandemic. On Twitter, he’s part of the #COVIDzero campaign, which has an ultimate and admirable eponymous goal.
Not wanting to distract from the reliable resources provided by public health officials, the team at the On COVID-19 Project still felt frustrated about what they saw as ineffective public health communication strategies, especially when trying to reach young Canadians.
So Samanta Krishnapillai, described as an “equity-oriented health scientist” in Markham, ON, started the On COVID-19 Project, with a well-designed website and comprehensive social media platform.
Launched back in June of this year, the Project is a co-operative grassroots, volunteer-based endeavour. The team describes itself as “your friendly neighbourhood nerds, active citizens, and change-agents” and they describe their target audience as Millennials and members of Gen Z.
By understanding and effectively harnessing the potential of social media, the #ONCOVID19Project strives to disseminate information that is shareable and easy to understand. The goal is to create content that is credible, concise, and Canadian.
They clearly point out that the information posted is not a substitute for information from health care providers, and that it should not supersede information shared, or directives given, by public health officials.
While reading information and learning from the content shared by the On COVID-19 Project team, site visitors are plainly told: the first point for online information regarding COVID-19 should be the Federal Government of Canada and the World Health Organization.
Even so, the youth-led and volunteer-based team cross-checks information across reputable platforms to bring added confidence in what’s published.
As noted on its website, the Project team feels that “[i]n the era of fake news, it is imperative that the information we consume is reliable and credible. We commit to finding accurate and well-sourced information that didn’t come from the deep cuts of Reddit or Wikipedia.”
Much of the site’s provided information has an open and plain language feel, so it is readily accessible to as many as possible.
The site encourages feedback and question-asking, so there’s an interactive aspect to the platform, as well.
Asking questions is surely a scientific endeavour, if not a purely human one. And answering those questions is certainly what fuels ‘Science Sam’, a.k.a. Dr. Samantha Yammine.
(I first encountered ‘Sam’ at a live science event staged at Harbourfront Centre a few years back. You could walk along the boardwalk and enjoy the sun and sights, and you could stop and ask questions of an assembled group of scientists, environmentalists, doctors, and clinicians who were presenting at the event.)
Of course, Dr. Yammine (who is a PhD and neuroscientist as well as a science communicator and social media user. On Instagram, Science Sam has long had a loyal following
for her broad-based science storytelling, while more recently her use of social media connects almost 100,000 followers to the timely and relevant information about science and COVID-19 she is providing.
Her feed of detailed tips for social distancing is very popular, and of course, she uses the platform to answer any questions she may receive and to share good information and resources she has found elsewhere. She’s organizing live-stream events with other experts.
Interestingly, and appropriately, Science Sam and others know that they are not the be-all and end-all of coronavirus information. What information they do provide is good, the links they share are great, but they know they do need help in spreading the good word.
Science Sam explains the deal like this: “[H]ere’s what I need from you: please use your social media for good. Take selfies in masks and share them… Share videos of you socializing virtually or from a distance outside in masks… Model that safe behaviour you wanna see other people doing…”
Yes, fighting a disinformation pandemic can be complicated, almost as much as fighting a global disease outbreak. Yet with the right information, the right approach, the right responses from everyone involved, both can be contained.
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