For Chisomo Banda, 23, and many of her friends in Lilongwe, news about Covid-19 was just like a rumour of a flu-like virus spreading thousands of miles away from the Malawian capital.
Unbothered, life went on normal: schools were open, businesses brimming with life and weekends full of community gatherings.
Unknown to Chisomo, the disease would take her community into a new strange world.
The reality of pre-Covid Malawi is reflected in the voices of young people like her who are active members of U-Report Malawi, a real-time social messaging and data collection tool developed by Unicef which sends SMS polls and alerts to its participants.
Unicef has used the platform as an online social listening tool to collect information on public understanding, opinions, trust and risk perception and prevent and control the pandemic. The platform provided accurate information to 230 000 U-Reporters, debunking Covid-19 myths and rumours.
In a baseline poll sent to U-Reporters in February 2020, seven in every 10 respondents said they did not know anything about Covid-19 symptoms and how it spreads.
Only 12 of every 100 young people who participated said they thought they were at risk.
“This poll came at a time when Covid-19 information was not fully accessible. U-Report eventually filled the gap, providing young people with relevant and timely information on Covid-19,” she says.
Chisomo recalls that the youth were flooded with both accurate and inaccurate information, making it difficult to distinguish trustworthy source of information from misinformers. The false information risked jeopardising the public health response.
U-Report, therefore, became an effective tool for managing the information overload and limiting its adverse impact on the adoption of recommended behavioursand services.
Collaborating with the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health, Unicef deployed a chatbot via the U-Report platform to debunk myths around the coronavirus. Young people engaged with the chatbox by sending the catchphrase ‘Coronavirus’ toll-free to 1177. They were able to ask questions on Covid-19 symptoms, spread and how they could protect themselves and others. In turn, they received accurate information that demystified prevailing myths.
The chatbox handled over a million text messages between February and August 2020. The polls sent included questions on school closures, violence against children, gender-based violence, access to services, and knowledge, attitudes and practices relating to Covid-19.
This engagement with young people improved their Covid-19 awareness.
A midline poll sent out in September 2020 shows that 98 percent of the young participants said they had heard of the pandemic—up from 76 percent in February 2020.
Even more striking was the rise in awareness of Covid-19 signs and symptoms. In the September poll, 85 percent of young people said they now had knowledge on Covid -19 symptoms and spread—up from just 30 percent in the February baseline poll.
Unicef Malawi’s communication for development specialist, Chancy Mauluka, says the baseline poll influenced risk communication and community engagement in the Covid -19 response.
“Based on the poll results, we made recommendations to our partners in the Covid-19 response to increase awareness of coronavirus transmission modes, signs and symptoms as well as vulnerability of individuals to the pandemic. From February to April, we raised risk perception from 44 to 60 percent,” he says.
Social listening via the U-Report platform is in line with Unicef comprehensive approach to monitor and manage rumours as the social media and digital platforms have become key sources of misinformation in the southern Africa.
Mauluka says: “Results from U-Report polls can inform us when change is not happening in knowledge, attitudes and practices. In addition, they help us to be more accountable to the people.
“Young people’s voices coming from the polls and chatbot helped us to enhance impersonal communication; engaging community, political and religious leaders as well as health workers and implementing partners to be more responsive and continue to influence risk perception. For instance, the responses informed us about the demands for services and products from community members.”
And Chisomo says it has been a learning process not to take everything shee sees in the news and on the internet as gospel truth.
“I also learnt that being critical as well as looking for other trusted sources to validate the information coming my way is important,” she says.