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WhatsApp at forefront of Singapore’s fight against COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

Tristan Manalac
10 Sep 2020
Ambulance doctors in Argentina are using WhatsApp to provide faster treatment for heart attack patients. are using WhatsApp to provide faster treatment for heart attack patients.

Online messaging apps may be helpful in spreading trustworthy information regarding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, allaying the public’s distress and promoting well-being, according to a recent Singapore study.

“In the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology offers novel solutions to disseminate public health messages. Prior to this study, however, there had been limited evidence evaluating these solutions. Accordingly, we systematically examined governmental use of WhatsApp to provide COVID-19 updates,” researchers said.

Surveying 1,145 adults (aged ≥21 years; 62.4 percent female) across Singapore over 8 weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, researchers found that the average participant was “not very scared” about the pandemic and thought it was “not too likely” that they or a household member would contract the disease. Most of them were also “somewhat confident” that the government would be able to stem the spread of COVID-19. [J Med Internet Res 2020;doi:10.2196/22142]

Most participants reported that they had adopted behavioural changes in response to the pandemic, such as washing hands and avoiding crowds. Almost half were tuned in to the government’s official WhatsApp channel and reported trusting the messages they received.

In addition, most had normal levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. However, 7.9 percent of participants still showed severe or extremely severe symptoms in at least one subscale of the 21-item Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (DASS-21).

Prolonged exposure to COVID-19 updates emerged as a robust and strong predictor of poorer well-being. Participants who spent a longer duration of time receiving information about the pandemic had worse depression, anxiety, and stress scores. Similarly, exposure to and the sharing of COVID-19 rumours also exacerbated anxiety symptoms.

Notably, however, the researchers saw that the government’s WhatsApp channel had a protective effect: those who used the channel showed significantly lower depression scores than nonusers (b, –0.07; p=0.04). This persisted even after controlling for demographic and situational factors.

Trust in the government’s official WhatsApp channel for information dissemination was likewise a significant predictor of lower anxiety (b, –0.05; p=0.03) and remained true despite adjustments for confounders. No such effect was reported for stress.

One potential explanation for these findings was the speed with which updates were transmitted to the general public, nipping rumours in the bud. The official WhatsApp channel might have also improved trust in national institutions, which could have eased anxiety.

“Given the promising nature of our findings, we encourage governments and trans-government bodies to explore these digital technologies. We further encourage researchers to empirically evaluate the impact of these solutions,” the researchers said.

“[T]he COVID-19 pandemic has developed against a backdrop of innovative solutions for widespread communication. In unprecedented times, these solutions have the potential to boost psychological resilience, as we have found through the use of WhatsApp by a government to disseminate local update,” they added.

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