Author: Mr J V R Prasada Rao, Former Union Health Secretary, Government of India
Misinformation is a virus, just like SARS-CoV-2. It can proliferate as rapidly and even claim lives. Early in the pandemic, hundreds of people died in Iran after drinking toxic Methanol, erroneously believingthat it can cure them of Corona Virus Disease-19 [COVID]. The pandemic has seen waves of such misinformation and disinformation—deliberate organised campaigns to mislead people prompting the World Health Organisation to coin the apt buzzword ‘infodemic’.
Similar misinformation and disinformation flows associated with mass immunization programmes have been among the top hurdles for health-systems for decades, risking health of millions of children. What’s different this time is the scale and the information environment.The pandemic in a hyperconnected world—-where so much about the virus was unknown, and so many across the world were anxious and fearful—-took this deluge of misinformation to incredible levels..
Now as the pandemic and mass-immunization converge, with the COVID vaccines start rolling out, scaremongering around it will soar too. In fact, much before jabs for COVID had appeared on the horizon, conspiracy theories were floating around that vaccines will implant trackable microchips to steal our information. As the prospect of vaccines became more real, social media was abuzz with claims that m-RNA technology being used by some vaccine-makers will alter the DNA of the subject.Unless counter measures are undertaken in time, these theories may be consumed widely and shape beliefs and decision-making around vaccines.
Such measures should include consistent and transparent sharing of science-based information about the vaccines from credible sources in lucid language—that citizens, families and communities can understand to make an informed decision. People have a right to know what’s in the vaccine, how will it be administered, how will it work in the body, and what reactions or side-effects, if any can they expect, and how would those be addressed.
In fact, Covid19 vaccination, more so because it may involve multiple doses, cannot be treated as an ‘one-off’ event.It’s a journey from the time the individual registers for vaccination to the time immunity develops. The safety of that journey for the first set of vaccinated people, who will indeed share their experience on social media and other platforms, will shape the decisions of millions others.This journey, even before it begins, will have many touchpoints for credible information to be imparted which cannot be done solely by the government.The process should involve independent actors such as academia, civil-society organisations that have strong grass-root level presence, philanthropy arms of large corporate houses, private sector other than vaccine manufacturers— among others. In fact, it will take nothing less than ‘a whole of society’ approach for the Covid vaccination drive to succeed.
The government on its part should emphasise in its messaging,for the citizens that ‘to go or not to go’ for a COVID vaccine is a ‘voluntary’ decision, that one makes in the interest of one’s own health and that of the family. To present the decision to go for COVID vaccination as a ‘responsible choice’ and not as an imposition, will effectively kill the motivation of many rumour-mongers.
Our victory over Polio owes much to co-opting community leaders, civil society organisations and religious heads in the eradication strategy.Many of them enjoy high trust and credibility among people and have the unique ability to turn scientific messages into contextually relevant information in the groups of their influence.While some religious leaders may themselves be the source of misinformation, there are many more who are progressive and lean towards scientific and rational thinking..These non-state actors, should be involved in a grand alliance that can help in social mobilisation for COVID vaccination.
While these social mobilization networks can help effectively reach socio-economically disadvantaged groups, and people in rural areas, a large section of population would also look up to credible experts through mainstream media and on the internet to help them make decisions. Scientists and vaccine experts should, go mainstream and play a pro-active role in shaping the attitude of people towards these vaccines. Industrial houses should also become partners in disseminating science-based information about COVID 19 vaccines to their employees, and through other mass-media channels.
It is also necessary for governments to be vigilant about isolated adverse incidents which may occur in such a large scale programme to vaccinate millions of people. Adverse event monitoring should take place at the lowest level of health care system and such cases should promptly be given medical attention.
Governments at the centre and state level are already working on upscaling the cold-chain facilities and training an army of additional vaccinators, which are absolutely critical for safe and effective delivery and administration of vaccines. But besides the readiness of physical and human resources, the leadership in the country will have to rise above their political and ideological differences, if this ambitious COVID vaccination drive has to succeed. The national response to the pandemic peaking with the mass vaccination drive is a rare opportunity for political leaders across party lines to join ranks and demonstrate to the people that on issues like taking care of the health of people they all stand united. That will be a true victory not just against the pandemic but for democracy itself.