Why the government should recruit TikTok Stars to fight COVID-19

Musthafa Azeez Photo credit: Karandeep Singh Oberoi

Toronto and Peel went into lockdown on November 23, after Ontario crossed the critical threshold of 150 COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units.

Premier Doug Ford told reporters that “further action is required to prevent the worst-case scenario.”

Perhaps one of the actions the government should take is recruiting TikTok influencers to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Using social media to spread important information is not a unique idea. It’s been done before, with varying degrees of success.

Most youngsters are aware of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral in 2014. Even in Canada, campaigns such as #FaceMaskFriday, launched by Region of Waterloo Public Health in June of this year have aimed to educate the public about a vital preventive measure in the fight against COVID-19.

However, this new awareness campaign would be shaped by two key facts.

First is that the bulk of new cases in Canada over the past few months, unlike in the spring, have been among young people. While health officials agree that young people are less likely to require hospitalization, they can still act as carriers for the contagious infection.

Secondly, we are entering the ninth month in our collective battle against COVID-19. It’s important to recognize that “lockdown fatigue” shapes our actions, even if Canadians are spared the ugliness of anti-mask and anti-shutdown protests that have plagued our neighbor to the south.

Rather than feisty demonstrations against the government, across Canada our fatigue manifests as indifference. Nearly $120,000 in tickets have been issued in B.C. so far. Brampton mayor Patrick Brown said fines would be issued after hundreds reportedly gathered for a Diwali celebration.

So, any new social media campaign should acknowledge that people are sick and tired of fearing they will become sick and tired.

Perhaps several years from now researchers will explore how much of that fatigue stemmed from the way information about COVID-19 was communicated to the public.

Currently, the government and media organizations rely on pure numbers to paint a picture but there’s a limit to how many graphs or red-tinged maps of municipalities can alarm a society that’s spent the majority of a year confined to their homes.

Therefore, an awareness campaign involving TikTok influencers would be unprecedented in two ways: content and creative control.

Several months ago, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, said she would be “game” to using TikTok to appeal to youngsters.

While that may help, it speaks to a common deficiency in public health related awareness campaigns. They’re almost always helmed by healthcare or government personnel, even if, as Health Minister Patty Hadju said during a press conference in August, young people are “involved in the work.”

What if instead young people had creative control over how they present the information? As to the content, perhaps they should take a leaf out of visual campaigns that had a dramatic impact on society’s conscience before most of them were born.

Remember how in 1996 Debi Austin appeared on television, talking to the camera while smoking a cigarette by holding it to a hole in her throat?

You may not recollect her name or face, but if the ad sounds familiar that’s because it was then replicated all over the world and convinced many to give up their addiction to nicotine.

So instead of graphs and maps, what if TikTok influencers were granted permission to film themselves in hospitals?

Every newspaper in the country has been talking about the threat of hospitals being overwhelmed, but no one seems to have a visual of what that would look like.

TikTok is a cheap and effective alternative to a camera crew. Rather than have a patient’s words about COVID-19 displayed as text on websites and newspapers, why not hear them talk in a TikTok video?

It’s easy to dismiss TikTok as the domain of teenagers who want to perfect their dance choreography. Besides, research shows that only 15 per cent of Canadians use TikTok, compared to 83 per cent for Facebook and 55perr cent for Instagram.

However, what’s often overlooked is TikTok’s ability to generate viral content which is then spread through other social media platforms. This is because of the app’s unique content style: short videos with liberal use of filters, text boxes and attention-grabbing music.

Allowing social media influencers to film the graphic reality unfolding within the walls of hospitals across Canada might raise accusations of impropriety, but there will be plenty of patients who are willing to waive their right to privacy if it’ll help their family members and friends escape the fate that’s befallen them.

After nine months, our approach to COVID-19 messaging shouldn’t be about disseminating information. It should be about provoking incredulity.

Like those graphic anti-smoking ads in the past, the goal is to shock the public into fighting an impulse that would have been encouraged earlier but has become an addiction right now: socializing with others.

We’ve tried afternoon press conferences and punitive fines. Perhaps now we should let Canadians hear from those who have ventilator tubes down their throats.

Maybe the heart-rendering Tik Tok sounds will make them realize we’re running out of time.

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