19 Nov 2020 MD 2020/4 Editorial
Fifty-five years after the death of the French author Albert Camus, and at a time when Ebola was raging in West Africa, the British journalist Ed Vulliamy wrote a glowing tribute about one of the writer’s best-known books first published in 1947. “Of all Camus’ novels, none described man’s confrontation – and cohabitation – with death so vividly and on such an epic scale as La Peste, translated as The Plague.”1
When Covid-19 reared its ugly head in late 2019, it was no surprise to see many people turning to The Plague for inspiration about how to respond to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, in years to come, a great many books, plays, films, and works of art will take as their theme what we now recognize as a global trauma.
From a broader communications perspective, sustained efforts by public service media in many countries to provide accurate, trustworthy and life-saving information about Covid-19 had to contend with government confusion, ineptitude, and in some cases blatant denial. Mixed messages regularly appeared in the mass media together with rumours, distortions and lies on social media.
In contrast and in the global South, community media (especially radio) took the lead in supplying information that was more reliable. Development experts have long understood community media’s edge when it comes to tackling misinformation and mistrust. Community media also have the ear of the people:
“To be useful, information must be tailored to the intended audience. It must respond to people’s questions and concerns, not just give them instructions. And it must be clearly expressed using concepts, sentence structures and terminology that audiences are familiar with. Experience from previous disease outbreaks shows this is a key factor for communities’ trust in and uptake of health guidance.”2
Even a cursory search of the Internet reveals a plethora of information platforms, pamphlets, guidebooks, and research studies covering multiple angles and initiatives related to Covid-19 – an avalanche itself described by some as an “information pandemic”. The double-edged nature of new information and communication technologies (NICTs) and social media, with their advantages and disadvantages, has become self-evident – especially because lives are at stake.
In 2019, Taiwan was ranked the ninth most technological and 13th most digitally competitive nation in the world. Its response to Covid-19 appears to have been exemplary, positively aided and abetted by NICTs:
“Bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, ‘hacktivism’ (activism through the building of quick-and-dirty but effective proofs of concept for online public services), and participatory collective action have been central to the country’s success in coordinating a consensual and transparent set of responses to the coronavirus. A recent report from the Stanford University School of Medicine documents 124 distinct interventions that Taiwan implemented with remarkable speed. Many of these interventions bubbled into the public sector through community initiatives, hackathons, and digital deliberation on the vTaiwan digital democracy platform, on which almost half the country’s population participates. (The platform enables large-scale hacktivism, civic deliberation, and scaling up of initiatives in an orderly and largely consensual manner.) A decentralized community of participants used tools such as Slack and HackMD to refine successful projects.”3
The technologies used to help combat the effects of Covid-19 – such as tracking and tracing – inevitably raised questions of privacy, social surveillance, and the risk of data manipulation by security services and corporate interests. In the context of the digital society, none of these issues was new, but the pandemic exacerbated the sense of intrusion, loss of privacy, and state control.
The pandemic also burrowed its way much deeper into the human psyche than anyone might have expected. It fractured family and community. It negated social behaviour. It isolated. It made some people more selfish and others more aware. It highlighted failures in political and economic structures. But it also began to create a sense of resilience, togetherness, and survival.
These are the themes of this issue of Media Development. It’s not all doom and gloom. A great deal of positive and creative thinking is emerging and there is every hope that the world will learn from it and be a better place.
As Mathilde Kpalla writes in her article:
“The hope is that when we come out of this crisis, there will be a new sense of responsibility on the part of each and everyone, a sudden awareness that excessive materialism has made so many people insensitive and blind to the values of living together, such as friendship, solidarity, honesty, justice and love. A materialism that led to excessive pressure on nature and brought increasing imbalances into our society.”
There is a long way to go yet, but as Dr Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus’ The Plague, remarks, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”
1. “Albert Camus’ The Plague: a story for our, and all, times”. The Guardian, 5 January 2015.
2. “Do You Speak COVID-19?” Policy Brief (March 2020) Translators Without Borders
3. “How Civic Technology Can Help Stop a Pandemic: Taiwan’s Initial Success Is a Model for the Rest of the World” by Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl. Foreign Affairs, 20 March 2020.
Photo: United Nations COVID-19 Response