Describing how Nigerians leveraged the social media to curtail the spread of Ebola, the Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, ‘Gbenga Sesan, said, “Social media is about sharing, and when the content is considered very useful or entertaining, there is the possibility of virality due to repeated social sharing. When the crisis hit us, social media was one of the first channels through which Nigerians could understand what was going on, discuss its implication and also get tips for protection.”
He added, “WhatsApp has been credited for the viral message that suggested the use of salt for bath and drinking, which unfortunately added to the losses we suffered due to Ebola. Fear and panic got their fair share of social media sharing, but the larger use to which social media was put was very positive.”
For any Nigerian, or citizen of any country hit by Ebola, Sesan advises that it is important to share information with friends, relatives and others as the disease will only be spread further due to lack of information.
“As soon as I found reliable information from medical professionals, and on-the-ground assisting teams, I was quick to share. I used Twitter to share useful information but also used other platforms including SMS to share with those who might not have the chance to get online information,” Sesan said. “I was recently invited by The Future Awards Africa to join their #StopEbola campaign, and I have continued to use a display picture sharing that message with my followers on Twitter.”
As with any local or global crisis, information plays a major role in crisis management, and Sesan hails Nigerians for leveraging the instant information sharing capability of the Internet to push Ebola out of the over 170-million-populated country.
“Imagine if we had to use gongs and town criers to announce and share information about Ebola prevention?” he asked.
Japheth Omojuwa, a Nigerian blogger with over 100,000 Twitter followers, also affirmed that the social media played a crucial role in Nigeria’s fight against Ebola.
Before the virus hit Nigeria, social media was useful in alerting Nigerians to the risk of an entry. After Nigeria’s first confirmed case, Omojuwa reiterates that platforms like @EbolaAlert and @EbolaFacts were very useful in sharing information about the virus and preventive measures.
He said, “I started the hashtag #FactsOnEbola and it soon caught on as several social media enthusiasts in Nigeria and across the continent began to use it to share information and third party experiences.
“The news of the hashtag soon reached conventional televisions and news platforms as I eventually got a chance to share the idea behind the hashtag and why social media was useful in the fight against Ebola with platforms like Reuters and the BBC.”
Omojuwa, who said the content of his social media engagement was curated from reliable news platforms and the WHO’s website, said his online Ebola activism was mostly about sharing and amplifying information with respect to preventive measures.
On the role the Internet can play in dealing with issues such as the Ebola outbreak, the Communication and Public Affairs Manager, Anglophone West Africa, Google, Taiwo Kola-Ogunlade, submits that Internet plays an important role in the discovery and sharing of health-related news and knowledge in Africa, particularly in the rural places where access to health care can be extremely scarce.
He said, “A dusty, rural village off the beaten path may be dozens of kilometres from the nearest doctor or nurse. If someone becomes violently ill, the time it takes to get to hospital by foot or by other means of transportation can be of critical importance, and such effort is not undertaken lightly.
“This is where the Internet (particularly mobile-enabled technology) plays an important role. Today, the route to understanding causes of action/information on diseases like the Ebola is a lot faster because of the reach of the web. For example, Ebola was the most searched term on Google Search between July and October. And the interest ranged from adequate knowledge of the disease to symptoms, news and the cure.”
According to Trending Searches on Google, Ebola virus topped the searches which emanated from Nigeria between August and October, 2014. This was followed by ‘Ebola Nigeria,’ ‘Ebola in Nigeria,’ ‘What is Ebola?’ and ‘Ebola News’ among others. Rivers, Oyo, Delta, Cross River, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and Lagos topped the list of states where most Ebola related searches emanated from.
An international Digital Economy and Services Leadership specialist, Dr. Anderson Uvie-Emegbo, in an interview with our correspondent, recalled that tweets such as those of the National Orientation Agency relayed messages such as “Report every suggestive symptom of Ebola to the Ministry of Health – 08023310923, 08097979595. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
He said, “Nigerians are by nature heavy communicators on messaging and chat platforms. Nigerians used social media to share Ebola advisory information and promote humour around the disease. Several Twitter handles were used to actively share conversations. Even the government was not left out. They sent out simple and easy to understand informative messages on the risk factors of Ebola disease to the mobile phones of millions of Nigerians.”
Sharing his personal experience on how he used the social media during the Ebola outbreak, Uvie-Emegbo, said, “Being a medical doctor who once contracted Pulmonary Tuberculosis while treating patients with HIV and Tuberculosis, I was particularly aware of the risks of transmission of the Ebola Virus Disease to our medical personnel.
“Among other things, one of the objectives of my Ebola-related social media engagements was to advocate for a significant improvement in the protection of exposed medical personnel. I contracted Tuberculosis because the system offered me no protection from the patients I so lovingly cared for.
“I curated and shared positive Ebola-related stories and hashtags. I participated in several online conversations and in all of these, I emphasised the need to protect health workers as their lives and those of their families were on the line. Sadly, we lost one of Nigeria’s finest – Dr Adadevoh.”
The team leader at Ebola Alert, Lawal Bakare, a trained dentist and founder of HEIT Solutions, a health promotions company based in Lagos, submitted that the Nigerian collaboration towards containing Ebola was a collective effort at all levels of government: federal, state, local governments and MDAs.
“Beside the health sector, the agriculture, technology, works and education sectors played key roles,” he added.
He explained, “Ebola gave to us the opportunity to implement the Adelaide Statement on Health in All Policies, which highlights an inter-ministerial and inter-departmental approach to health. Health is our collective effort and as was evident in the Nigerian Ebola outbreak, the collective effort of federal, state and local governments can do great things.”
On what to do to ensure that the country remains Ebola-free, Bakare identified five steps: prompt reporting of suspected cases, high environmental and personal hygiene standard, high index of suspicion for Ebola, sustained government collaboration, and sustained community action and participation.
Of particular importance, according to him, is the role the social media will continue to play in keeping the country Ebola-free.
He said, “The Nigerian Ebola surveillance protocol is highly dependent on information. We have over 110 million active mobile subscribers and 54 million Internet subscribers and widespread distribution of public and private primary healthcare centres nationwide. That is a huge amount of potential reporters.
“If we will remain Ebola-free, any suspicion of Ebola, whether by individuals or health facilities, must be immediately reported to health authorities.”
Apart from government-owned health facilities and toll-free mobile telephone lines, other reporting channels being relied upon are Twitter (@EbolaAlert), Facebook.com/EbolaAlert, and web: Livechat on EbolaAlert.org.
The @EbolaAlert Twitter handle being managed by Bakare during the EVD outbreak was getting over 200,000 hits a day in Nigeria, answering questions related to Ebola and directing users to relevant information.
In what experts considered as an attempt to gauge the public awareness campaign carried out online and offline, the NOIPolls Ltd in partnership with EpiAfric, an Abuja-based public health consulting firm, conducted a poll seeking to know the level of awareness about Ebola among Nigerians.
Key findings from the poll revealed that 91 per cent of respondents surveyed acknowledged awareness of the outbreak of the viral disease.
“Slightly more than half (51 per cent) of adult Nigerians affirmed they have enough information to protect themselves from the Ebola virus disease. The highest proportion of respondents who confirmed that they have enough information to protect themselves against the disease were aged between 30-45 years (61 per cent),” the report said.
According to the Programmes Manager, Onelife Initiative, Mr. Sola Fagorosi, the social media can play a preventive role during any crisis.
“The understanding that the world of today is so interconnected would help one always have a preventive pose even when a health crisis is brewing in, say Botswana.
“Social media will allow for literacy on what the problem is and how to prevent it. It will also allow one to share information and also read, watch and listen to what is happening to others and how they are surviving the situation.”
He advised the government, especially the ministries of health and communications technology to continue to use social media channels and other means to regularly share about the virus and new measures put in place by government.
“It should not stop until the virus is totally contained in other countries,” he added.
No doubt, Nigerians created and curated messages which went viral on the social media, among other measures, to combat Ebola and the country today is good for it.