A year after its outbreak, vaccination campaigns for COVID-19 have already rolled out in several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Singapore. A vaccination program has yet to begin in the Philippines as of press time, but to attain herd immunity, proper public health communication is just as important as a strategic vaccine mobilization program, according to epidemiologist Dr. John Q. Wong.
Dr. Wong, together with other health, communication, and public service experts, led the discussion in a recent webinar titled, “Epidemiology for Communicators: Telling Stories of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Philippines,” organized by Epimetrics, Inc. and Probe Media Foundation, supported by SM Prime Holdings, Inc. and the National Resilience Council (NRC). The partners and technical experts held the webinar to help build the capacity of communicators to convey risk by relaying epidemiologic information. Effectively communicating risk is critical to keeping the public well-informed and promoting safety in the community.
During the event, the speakers delved into the concepts of epidemiology and public health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and shared their thoughts on the importance of proper risk communication as the nation continues its ongoing battle with the pandemic.
According to Dr. Wong, going to reliable medical sources and approaching circulating information with skepticism are also part of battling the pandemic. With the emergence of COVID-19 variants, many stories are appearing on social media. Everyone has the responsibility to filter and check the information in order to prevent sowing of fear and adding to the white noise surrounding the crisis.
Another point of discussion in the forum is the expected roll out of the COVID-19 vaccination program in the Philippines. With vaccine supplies on the way, Dr. Wong said that it is crucial to build vaccine confidence among the public. Aside from choosing a vaccine with high efficacy, one way to reduce vaccine hesitancy is to properly inform the public about the matter.
He added that vaccine confidence and hesitancy are not information deficit problems. These, in fact, represent a trust deficit problem. This means that in order to have an impact, the messenger and the medium are as important as the message itself. Experts and officials must, therefore, have a united front when building the public’s trust in the COVID-19 vaccine.
The webinar featured several expert reactors to Dr. Wong’s discussion. The Department of Health’s Dr. Beverly Ho, TV and film producer Pauline Saltarin, and journalist Howie Severino, shared their thoughts on the importance of combating fake news amid the crises. One critical way of doing this was by engaging professionals and experts with knowledge and experience in strategically communicating about public health. This would ensure that the information is backed by evidence and that it would be easily understood.
Reactors to Dr. Wong’s discussion include Department of Health (DOH) Director of Health Promotion Bureau Dr. Beverly Ho (right); film producer Pauline Saltarin (left) and journalist Howie Severino (center).
Likewise, it is crucial to keep COVID-19 on the public communication radar to maintain awareness and increase knowledge on this important matter. The best way to do this is through stories — find narratives on the pandemic to help people identify with the experience of others, and then become more informed about it. When communicating to the public about public health, stories should be accurate but easily digestible and relatable, which can be achieved by sharing common experiences.
The fight to end the pandemic is far from over. As public health is a shared responsibility, strategically communicating risk for prevention and recovery is at its very core. It is imperative that everyone be well-informed and equipped to take part in safety and prevention measures. This way, reaching targets such as achieving herd immunity (the state wherein enough of the population is immune to an infectious disease such that its transmission is arrested) becomes possible. An essential task in attaining this is to provide effective communication for informed action. In order to do this, a unified front amongst the scientific community, government officials, and media practitioners is a must. By working together, an end to this crisis can be reached.
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