Digital Defenders: How 24/7 media can help fight swine flu worldwide

So this is how it REALLY started...
So this is how it REALLY started...
The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week that the global spread of swine flu was highly likely, and raised its alert level to Phase 5 — the next-to-highest level in the worldwide warning system. It also offered advice on prevention, caring for persons with the flu and how to seek medical help.

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.

TV playing nanny: How Asian broadcasters helped fight SARS

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.

WHO's phases of a pandemic alert
WHO's phases of a pandemic alert

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

4 thoughts on “Digital Defenders: How 24/7 media can help fight swine flu worldwide”

  1. Pingback: Besourorodeioshow
  2. My views on this topic have also just been quoted in a news feature published on Asia Media Forum website:
    Asian Media Playing the Waiting Game on H1N1 Flu?
    Posted: 2009-05-01
    By Lynette Lee Corporal

    It also quotes Roopa Rakshit, communications and information manager of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Thailand, and Milind Khandekar, managing editor of ‘Star News’ in Mumbai. Both of them, along with writer Lynette herself, were participants at the Asian regional brainstorming on ‘Communicating Disasters: Building on the tsunami experience and responding to future challenges’ that I organised and chaired in December 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand. More at:

  3. In Canada we had a SARS breakout a few years ago. Toronto (which is Canada’s largest city) was like a ghost town in its core. Hotels were closing…and everyone wore masks. We know now the masks they wore were the wrong type….but they wore them anyway. In all media here they talk about this Swine Flu….fear is in the media….fear is everywhere….and its is a very scary thing. We are told to stay away from confined spaces like on a subways or bus…not to mention shopping malls….I am not so sure ..I think that fear is the real enemy…and lack of knowledge fans the fires of fear. We over react because of lack of knowledge….a knee jerk reaction. We should remember what the USA President Hoover said. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. It is true today. But wash you hands.
    Dave Damario

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