With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, floodgates of bad news opened, and suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by fear. We became fearful of the safety of our loved ones, afraid of what the future might hold, scared for survival, and overwhelmed with news of infections, and deaths.
With the third wave, the number of infected is fast multiplying. The country of almost 230 million is recording high levels of daily new infections similar to the ones experienced last June.
Just across the border, rows and rows of bad news are streaming in. Our next-door neighbor is running short on oxygen, its healthcare systems are failing and crematories are plying up with pyres and with it, apprehension and angst have taken roots in everyone’s mind.
With much similar demographics, Pakistan could be the next. Times ahead are uncertain and as in any crisis, it’s not only the physical safety that is at risk but also our mental well-being.
Months of worry and safety protocols over the virus that blindsided us have left us in a constant state of paranoia and mistrust, we distrust the news, we eye any development on the subject with suspicion. We also question the truth behind the number of cases and deaths reported by the Government.
Amidst this uncertainty and disruption in social routines, our reliance on social media has multiplied many folds as compared to the pre-covid times, leaving us susceptible to an equally threatening disease of false narratives and emotionally charged anti-vaccine propaganda.
Impact of propagandist cults
Misinformation once implanted can rarely be corrected. Conspiracies have a way of spreading like wildfire, finding supporters and sympathizers in all demographics, posing a threat to undo the months of progress made against the pandemic.
Already, those who denied the virus branding it as a hoax, and opposed wearing masks, have contributed substantially to the socio-economic wreck caused by Covid-19.
With the development and introduction of vaccines, the propagandist cults have shifted their focus towards questioning the efficiency of different brands, running targeted campaigns that hype the vaccines side effects, to some going as far as planting the seeds of fear of infertility, memory loss, and nano-chips in the minds of their audience.
The result is a significantly growing number of people brainwashed by anti-vaccine propaganda into anti-vaxxers who not only themselves shun the vaccine but also spread community-wide distrust and hesitancy against Covid -19 vaccinations.
As history serves us, feverish propaganda against polio vaccinations birthed anti-vaccine sentiments that till day continue to heavily impact our on-ground polio eradication efforts. Today, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two remaining countries in the world where the disease is still found.
Will the fight against covid-19 suffer a similar fate where messages centered on the negative content, widespread across social media platforms, paralyze the efforts to curb Covid-19?
Strategy against misinformation
Herd immunity is Pakistan’s sole safe passage out of future lockdowns and is heavily dependent upon a majority of its population getting vaccinated. These negative projections steal the limelight away from the main purpose of the vaccine drive- a future free of Covid-19.
Social Media platforms are already running campaigns to check the spread of vaccine misinformation. Facebook is actively spotting and removing fake news and false claims against all vaccines.
However, to address and eradicate the anti-vaccine propaganda that has taken its roots in the local society, efforts need to be localized as well. Rumors are best addressed in the languages they spread.
To garner the public’s faith in the vaccine, the authorities need to go beyond projecting confidence in the vaccines by having its top officials, office bearers, and other influencers vaccinated.
Strategies for community engagement need to be revised with an inclusive bottom-up approach involving local communities and their leaders across all demographics, age, religion, and sex, communicating the message in a language and manner the communities understand.
The mass media information campaigns on covid-19 too should consider shifting the focus towards addressing vaccine hesitancy. The essence of the messages needs to elaborate the key benefit of the vaccine drive- a flattening curve, and highlight its ugly counterpart- localized cycles of reinfections and a never-ending loop of Covid infections akin to Polio in Pakistan.
There is a need to provide authentic sources of information to the people to counter the misleading propagandist tunes, and in a format that straddles across communities easily and builds trust in the vaccine.
The author is a Political Economist, currently working with the Punjab Board of Investment and Trade with core interests in Politics, Media, and Human rights issues. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.