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COVID-19 and combating the global crisis of information

We consider the global crisis of information in the face of today’s COVID-19 outbreak, as well as looking at how linguists are working to combat it.

In this week’s blog, we’re going to consider the global crisis of information in the face of today’s COVID-19 outbreak. We'll also take a look at some of the ways that communicators and linguists are working to combat it.

“But we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

These were the strong words of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference on February 15th 2020.

His speech addressed the rapid global outbreak of COVID-19, noting that whilst the virus itself poses an unprecedented threat to public health, so does the spread of misinformation.

As a global society, we have never been more connected than we are today. Thanks to constant technological development, we can now contact one another with the touch of a button, no matter where we are in the world.

But, at the same time, we are living through a crisis of information. Firstly, misinformation can now be spread faster than ever. Secondly, there is still a chasm between richer and poorer nations when it comes to accessing accurate and up-to-date information in a language and format one understands.


Managing a 'tsunami of information'

What’s more, the current COVID-19 situation has only served to highlight the world's crisis of information.

According to Sylvie Briand, director of Infectious Hazards Management at WHO's Health Emergencies Programme talking to The Lancet, “We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a kind of tsunami of information, but also within this information you always have misinformation, rumours, etc. We know that even in the Middle Ages there was this phenomenon.”

“But the difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified, it goes faster and further […]”

“What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people will do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact. So it is not only information to make sure people are informed; it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately.”

Older lady washing hands

Disseminating and interrogating information: The crisis of information

So, what is currently being done to disseminate accurate and accessible information, and to interrogate the spread of misinformation?

WHO's risk communication team has recently launched a brand-new information platform, ‘WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN)’, with the aim of creating tailored information to target specific groups.

The global communications team, spanning six regional offices, consists of about 20 staff, as well as additional consultants. This team manages social media output as well as all official WHO communications about COVID-19.

Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, a social media manager within WHO's department of communications, has commented that “fighting infodemics and misinformation is a joint effort [...]”

“In my role, I am in touch with Facebook, Twitter, Tencent, Pinterest, TikTok, and also my colleagues in the China office who are working closely with Chinese social media platforms.”

“Something we are putting our strongest efforts in, is to ensure no matter where people live….when they’re on Facebook, Twitter, or Google, when they search for ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ or [a] related term, they have a box that…directs them to a reliable source: either to [the] WHO website to their ministry of health or public health institute or centre for disease control.”

Social media and the crisis of information

Kuzmanovic notes that, in response to the crisis, Google has created an SOS Alert on COVID-19 for the six official UN languages, and is also expanding in some other languages.

But what about those who don’t speak a global language? Or what about those with low levels of literacy?

The COVID-19 response from Translators without Borders

Translators without Borders (TWB) is a not-for-profit organisation that offers language, translation and interpreting support to humanitarian agencies and not-for-profit organisations across the world (and is an organisation that Wolfestone proudly sponsors).

With the goal of addressing the language gap that can greatly hinder urgent and critical humanitarian efforts such as the global COVID-19 response, TWB’s vision is to create “a world where knowledge knows no language barriers.” They have translated almost 80 million words to date.

According to TWB, now more than ever, “People urgently need access to accurate information in a language and format they understand to make well-informed decisions during this pandemic.”

Person typing on laptop

TWB are currently working on translating critical public-facing content into languages and formats that people can understand, with a particular effort on the multitude of Asian languages that currently lack high-quality, translated content. They are also carrying out:

  • Language data and mapping, to discover which languages are spoken where, as well as monitoring literacy levels.
  • Social media monitoring, to spark multilingual conversations around misinformation and fake news.
  • Terminology research, to develop COVID-19 glossaries.


It's clear that, if we are to overcome the global threat of COVID-19, there is much more to be done to conquer our information crisis.

We must collaborate. We must seek to draw on the expertise of the entire language services industry, from translation to transcription, from subtitling to voice over.

We must work together to guarantee that, as far as possible, everyone has access to clear, accurate and timely information in a language and format they understand.

You can find out more about TWB's work here.


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