A pandemic is not something to be taken lightly. The New Media President Barack Obama has termed the outbreak “cause for deep concern but not panic”. On 29 April 2009, he took the unusual step of using a prime-time televised news conference, convened to mark his 100th day in office, to deliver a public health message to the American people.
“Wash your hands when you shake hands, cover your mouth when you cough,” he said. “It sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, take them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don’t get on an airplane.”
That’s the basic preventive message that needs amplification and repetition all over the world. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and all communications professionals to support the public awareness response. Flu shots and hospitals alone cannot win this battle.
For the first time in history, we have the means of rapid access to most of humanity. What we now need is clarity of message, credible messengers and sustained delivery.
I see this as an interesting – even if very risky – social experiment on the preventive powers of our 24/7 media and information devices. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, most of them in the developing world. Over one billion people connect to the web. We also have hundreds of radio and TV channels saturating the airwaves. Can these media peddle the right kind of awareness and inspire preventive action faster than the flu virus propagates itself? This is the classic race between education and catastrophe that H G Wells wrote about many decades ago!
We in Asia have some useful experiences from 2003 when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) affected much of the region. On that occasion, the media led a parallel front against the pandemic, delivering both preventive messages and helping care for those already infected.
Precisely because rapid response is vital in a situation like SARS and swine flu, it’s the broadcast and online media that can provide timely and up-to-date coverage. It’s too early and too soon to compare media’s role in this crisis with SARS and other rapid-spread public health crisis of the past. Print media can also play a part in spreading general awareness, but they don’t have the speed and 24/7 outreach that we need for covering a crisis like this. Besides, in many parts of the world, newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay in business, coping with a terminal malady affecting their industry.