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Omicron, Third Wave & Mass Media

Yuviniar EkawatiKevin Aprilio

4 min read

As the first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Indonesia is confirmed and experts point to a possibility of the virus’ third wave attack within Indonesia, all sectors in the country must fully prepare, with the mass media specifically needing to produce better news about healthcare and pandemic to achieve goals of catering to the public interests, and not spread misleading information, especially about hyping unproven medicines.

Indonesian Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin announced Thursday that the Omicron variant was detected in Indonesia. The minister said that the Omicron case was found in a cleaning worker at the Wisma Atlet, an emergency hospital that treats COVID-19 patients.

While it is yet to be confirmed from where the worker got the variant, the fact that he has not been travelled abroad indicates that there were others in Indonesia that have been infected by the virus.

Omicron’s entry into Indonesia is actually not surprising because thousands of people come and leave the country every day. Only from mid-September to early October, for instance, nearly 12,000 foreigners have entered Indonesia through Soekarno-Hatta Airport alone. We can imagine how many people have arrived in Indonesia through other airports and seaports across the country every day.

In fact, the news of Omicron’s discovery is possibly delayed by the government so that transmission tracing can be carried out first in an attempt to suppress the infection rate.

Since November, we faced with experts’ predictions of an upcoming third wave in December or January 2022. This prediction is corroborated as other countries experience increasing COVID-19 cases as well as emergence of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.

This indicates the necessity for us to be prepared for the third wave, especially after facing the second wave. To be able to deal with this time of crisis, we need a mass media that can better serve the public interests. However, in the previous time of crisis, we observe that mass media workers have not properly applied evidence-based medicine (EBM) as the forefront of healthcare practice.

Messy Mass Media

Mass media’s ability reach wide audiences has a strategic role as a tool for public health communication. This ability gives mass media a power to help the public equally obtain proper access to pandemic and healthcare news, and in return, healthcare itself. Such an important role can be seen through reportages about oxygen outage at the dr. Sardjito General Hospital in midst of the second wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic earlier this year. The media reports managed to put the Oxygen outage the center of national attention forcing the central government to quickly act to solve the problems.

However, when mass media delivers news based on unproven claims without questioning the clinical evidence, disaster ensues.

Lack of evidence-based news by mass media in Indonesia is seen when the mass media reported GeNose. At the end of last March, GeNose became one of the screening tests available to be used as domestic travel permit. Nevertheless, in July as the number of cases spikes to its peak of the second wave of COVID-19, GeNose was deemed as inaccurate. Its use as travel permit was then revoked, despite significant government spending trying to push its public use.

Since its launch, GeNose has raised questions as its founders have been reluctant, on multiple circumstances, to disclose its nature as well as its accuracy rate. But the media coverage continue to strengthen its hype by using buzzwords such as “locally made”; “made by your compatriot Indonesian”; and “national innovation”, without further questioning its clinical evidence.

This example shows how mass media fail to cater to public interests in times of crisis. False information regarding healthcare was perpetuated with no critical appraisals, ignoring evidence-based medicine (EBM) as the forefront of healthcare practice.

Reflecting on the second wave when the crisis occurred, Google Trends shows an increase in search queries related to information on COVID-19 treatment.

Several names of medicines claimed to help treat COVID-19 also arise. Nevertheless, its sudden appearance, as recorded on search engines from June to July, also raises questions about its origins and validity because they have not been tested for their effectivity in treating COVID-19.

While everyone can produce information and disseminate it through social media, mass media workers face their own challenges in presenting factual information and becoming a counter-narrative for misinformation in the society. Therefore, mass media needs to be prepared to deal with a surge in cases and information that come along with it in the coming months.

Media integration and the democratization of information have resulted in information becoming easy to obtain and disseminate. However, this convenience also bombards people with constant information without the ability to verify them. This is what is known as the information overload era.

The inaccurate information of COVID-19 treatment oftentimes leads people to improper self-treatment. Despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations against the use of medicines such as chloroquine, lopinavir, and ritonavir for COVID-19, they are still used by many people here. This defiance shows that inaccurate information regarding COVID-19 treatment still circulate in the community.

This misinformation is oftentimes the basis of improper self-treatment of COVID-19. The use of prescription-only medicines without expert supervision leads to adverse drug effects. Moreover, panic buying of these medicines has also resulted in its stock depletion, further straining the healthcare system.

Questioning Claims from Anyone

Responding to the information overload era, mass media must act as a public health communication tool. Mass media have a responsibility to guard public interests and represent their community in demanding their rights for health information, allowing them a bigger opportunity for better access to health services.

Therefore, when reporting health issues, media workers need to have comprehensive knowledge regarding the healthcare system. In this case, evidence-based medicine  or EBM may become a valuable tool for media workers.

While mainly being used by clinicians in choosing proper treatments for their patients, this concept can also be used by media workers in sorting health-related information. Its use allows proper analysis of claims made by not only laypeople, but also those who are considered to have authority over health issues.

As scientific evidence is the focus of the EBM, absence of evidence in a claim renders it invalid. In the COVID-19 pandemic, such concept is useful in breaking down previous claims of validity. The EBM could prove the invalidity of  GeNose, Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture’s anti-SARS-CoV-2 necklace, Indonesian Representative Council’s HerbaVid-19, and Vaksin Nusantara.

Such successes can serve as examples of the need to question all medical claims, despite coming from state authorities or academics.

Despite its shortcomings, EBM provide a tool for people to sharpen their critical thinking and skepticism by questioning certain claims while evaluating their validity. For mass media, this tool can be used to reevaluate claims before disseminating them.

Note: this article is a result of a collaboration between Yuviniar Ekawati (journalism student) and Kevin Aprilio (pharmacy student). We raised this issue based on our concern on the prediction of the possibility of the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia, especially in regard to mass media’s reaction to the previous second wave of COVID-19. We elaborate the importance of mass media’s reportage to public health and proposed the use of evidence-based medicine (EBM) as a tool in dissecting claims, especially in regards to healthcare.

Yuviniar Ekawati

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