We Say: COVID awareness needs to speak our languages

When I suggested to a friend on Facebook that we should host a live session on the social media platform about COVID-19 and vaccinations, I absolutely had no idea what we were getting into. Seven days later and three live sessions smarter, we’ve learnt a lot about the value of speaking with people in our own languages and dialects and tapping into the experience of trusted professionals from our own communities, including our diaspora.

A colleague remarked later that we had started a virtual information revolution of sorts. Some 17,000 watched our second Q&A Facebook live session with a panel of medical doctors taking questions about the pandemic from viewers and addressing some of the more common conspiracy theories relating to the virus and the vaccine. Since we launched our first live information session on 7 June, two other Fiji provinces have run online sessions in their own dialects, and two other provinces are planning theirs.

As I write, the numbers relating to the information session doubled to more than 44,862 people reached, 19,913 engagements, 1500 comments and 456 shares. The stats are staggering for a number of reasons.

Foremost is the fact that the session was conducted not in English, but in the dialect of the Lau province on Fiji’s eastern sea borders. Second, this was a purely community initiative, conceptualised and produced outside of the official Fijian Ministry of Health and Medical Services’ communication outreach programme, which has in its huge and wide communication arsenal the national radio and television services of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation. Every year, Fijian taxpayers pay more than US$5.3 million to FBC for exactly this type of public services.

Therein perhaps lies the reason for the overwhelming response to the information session conducted in the vernacular. The huge volume of traffic about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations on a Facebook site created specifically for the people of Lau province prompted a group of mostly young Lau professionals living in Fiji and abroad to take the bull by the horns, as it were and hold their own information awareness sessions, using medical doctors who speak the dialect and a social medium that is widely available.

As one of the participating doctors, Qalo Sukabula, a GP at a BHP mining town near Perth, told ABC radio, we saw a gap that needed filling and without waiting around for government direction or approval, we just went ahead and filled that need.

Indeed it is only when these information sessions featured Auckland-based GP and a member of New Zealand’s national COVID-19 Response Group, himself a son of Lau, Dr Api Talemaitoga, that we realised that Fiji and the other islands of the Pacific had only to look to its bigger neighbours to learn about world best practices of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

A key component of New Zealand’s elimination strategy is empowering all the communities of Aoteroa of the right kind of information, in their own languages. Engagement was done at various levels using zoom technology and pocket meetings, when social gathering restrictions were lifted.  The only telling difference of course is that the Jacinda Ardern Government had the means to bankroll its massive community information outreach campaign.

Such small online, grass-root movement is a welcome development in island communities, as they recognise the stark reality that for many if not in all of our islands in the Pacific, English is not our first language. Here in Fiji, official communications are often delivered in the three official languages, English, Fijian (Bauan) and Hindi. Rarely are they delivered in Fijian dialects.

The other lesson is the do-it-yourself attitude, not waiting around for governments to spoon-feed us when it comes to empowering our communities with accurate and timely information, and fighting the incredible amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic and its life-saving vaccines.