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WCPH 2020 Blog

Think digital: infodemics in the age of COVID-19

  Programme related - Vina HuLamm - 27 Jul 2020 9:00 CET

Since 2009, I’ve had the privilege of attending the World Congresses on Public Health held in Turkey, Ethiopia (2013), India (2015) and Australia (2017). At every one of these events, I have witnessed the power of public health professionals gathering from around the world during times of unique challenges and disturbances. This year’s 16th World Congress on Public Health, to be held virtually for the first time ever, is no exception.  

Beyond health, we know the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in so many ways due to the impacts – socially, economically and politically. By the time of this writing, my country, the U.S., has reached over 4 million COVID-19 cases and over 145,000 deaths. While many countries have successfully contained their infection rates and minimized deaths, the U.S. continues to break records for new cases on a near daily basis and currently leads with the highest death toll. For Americans, the world is becoming a much smaller place as we learn what it feels like to be shut out and turned away from other countries’ borders due to our government’s lack of preparedness as well as the mismanagement of its disease response. Sadly, the U.S. is “number one” but certainly not in the way that is worthy of setting an example for other countries.

Perhaps posing an even greater threat than the virus itself, is the widespread “infodemic” that has hampered the public health response. According to a Pew Research survey, almost half of the adults surveyed believe they have seen some fake news about COVID-19. Why does this matter? During an epidemic or outbreak, we’ve seen the demand for information skyrocket as people seek to make sense of what is happening around them. However, the overwhelming amount of fake news, myths and conspiracy theories shared has threatened our own understanding of how to address the pandemic. As we’ve seen from the news, this has led to political “blame games,” deaths, violence and xenophobia. Having the right or wrong information can be potentially threatening as far as life or death, especially on a massive scale.

At a time when trust is particularly critical, the public’s own confusion and mistrust of science-based evidence from government entities and institutions becomes even more dangerous. But, this is hardly a new phenomenon considering past history has shown that both misinformation and disinformation have played roles in fueling infectious disease outbreaks. Even with the promise of a vaccine sometime in the near future, it is clear that a vaccine alone will not be the “magic bullet” to stop the pandemic.  

As the co-chair of the WFPHA’s Global Health Equity and Digital Technology working group, I see the Congress as a tremendous opportunity to create change. How do we use information and communications technologies to confront the public health infodemic? One of the Congress’ plenary sessions entitled, “What happened to the Enlightenment?”, will address this very topic. Additionally, the public health community must develop the skillsets necessary to identify these evolving threats and develop strategies to effectively tackle them. How can we better frame our messages to the public? What are the digital tools and strategies we can use to help us better collaborate in our efforts? The Congress will feature an interactive pre-conference workshop on digital leadership for public health professionals.

Although we will not be able to meet in person, the accessibility of the virtual Congress is expected to bring an even wider global audience and increased country representation. It will be an event that brings the most influential public health professionals from around the globe to exchange innovative ideas, share tools and best practices as well network. At the same time, each and every one of us will be saving time and money on travel as well as doing our part for the earth to reduce our own carbon footprint. 

Given the circumstances we currently face, the call to rally the troops is even louder for us to come together in solidarity to reflect, support, engage and connect with our colleagues. We can do better and learn better from other countries’ experiences.  Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of every difficulty, lies opportunity.” Now is the moment for the public health community to lead the way. This World Congress on Public Health is the time for us to reinforce our values, renew commitments, and strengthen leadership. It is a time for us to reflect on what we’ve witnessed and experienced. It is also an opportunity to bring together the collective strengths of the Global South and the North. We know that strong commitments to global cooperation needs to continue.  

Your voice, presence and participation are critical to make this World Congress happen. I hope to “see you” all online soon.       

Vina HuLamm, MS

Global Health Manager, American Public Health Association
Member, International Congress Council for the 16th World Congress on Public Health
Co-chair, WFPHA Global Health Equity and Digital Technology working Group
Treasurer, Alliance of Public Health Associations of the Americas (AASPA) 



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