ON COVID-19 project combats misinformation

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Millenials, Gen Z target demographic

The pandemic experience, while frustrating and restricting, has been the inspiration for some individuals to use their skillsets for the benefit of others. In the area of combatting misinformation, Samanta Krishnapillai took a break from her Master’s in Health Information Sciences at Western University to start the ON COVID-19 project, aimed at disseminating credible information to communities that have been left out of the narrative.

“I studied the health care sector for several years so I felt really privileged when the pandemic started.” Krishnapillai said. “I don’t understand all the nitty gritty parts with the biology of the virus, but I had a good understanding of how it was transmitting, what that meant, and what sort of restrictions would have to be put in place because I had studied this stuff.”

Krishnapillai added that “This pandemic, while it doesn’t hit us all equally, we do all deserve access to information, and information that is easy to digest […] the part that really hit me was that my friends and family were asking me questions and I just kept thinking ‘You can’t be the only people with these questions.’”

Following these realizations, Krishnapillai began working to combat what she calls the “one size fits all” messaging being put out by health authorities at present. She brought up the fact that safety messaging has been mainly directed at white, upper-middle class individuals, which does not meet the needs of the whole population. As an example, she brought up the fact that Christmas and Thanksgiving restrictions were widely communicated, but people celebrating other holidays such as Diwali had to adapt those measures to fit their circumstances without any guidance. “It’s so upsetting because the messaging is creating different categories of people who all have different access to information and different abilities to minimize their risk,” she said. “All of us deserve the same chance to protect ourselves, and that’s not what’s going on right now.”

The ON COVID-19 project targets people between about 15 to 35 – Millenials and Gen Z – because of Krishnapillai’s belief that current messaging doesn’t treat them as a target demographic. “A lot of the rhetoric we’re getting from officials is that young people are spreading the virus and I’m not saying that’s not what’s happening, but I am saying if you don’t give messaging that is applicable to young people then they feel left out of the narrative and don’t feel seen in it, valued in it, or relevant to it, so they don’t want to do anything about it. They reject the whole thing and I get that, I fully understand it, and I wish that elected officials and public health officials would take a second and consider what they’ve done to set people up for success.”

To combat this, Krishnapillai said her group takes an altered approach when designing the posts they put on social media. “What we say internally is ‘How would you explain it to your friend who maybe isn’t paying as much attention as they should?’ You wouldn’t be angry at them or mad at them, you would ask what they need and how you can help them.”

This project has expanded to 114 Millennial and Gen Z volunteers at present, and has seen their reach expand thanks to their collaborative model, the humility of those in leadership roles, and their eagerness to learn and improve wherever possible. “You know the Maya Angelou quote, ‘Do the best you can until you know better, and when you know better, do better?’ Every time someone teaches us how to do things better, we just do it,” Krishnapillai said with a laugh. “Someone once asked me ‘How do you work with such a large team virtually?’ and I think it’s that I never assume I have all the answers, but I always assume that someone out there does.”

With that being their attitude, the group is currently seeking “Anyone who understands media stuff, we would love expertise on that. We don’t really have a lot of expertise on how to engage with the media but we do think the work we’re doing is important, and we’d like to be able to get funding for things like a professional Canva account that I’m self-funding right now.”

Krishnapillai added that “We need more people with an arts background, a creative marketing background, a journalism background, and above all people with an equity, diversity, and inclusion lens. I know this project well but I don’t know what individual people’s skillsets are, so we’re looking for people to come and tell us what they’re good at so we can find a way to utilize their skills. Right now, we have engineers, we have business kids, we have people who didn’t go to college or university but want to be part of the discussion and help.” If you are interested in getting involved with the project, Krishnapillai says all that’s needed is enthusiasm and an email address.

Other individuals the ON COVID-19 project is looking to collaborate with include elected officials and health authorities who Krishnapillai has attempted to contact in the past. “If there are officials out there that want to hear what we’ve been gathering and the questions we get emailed in, the things we see as important issues to address and identify, we will give you that. We have no issue sharing that because we’re all fighting the same fight.”

This group of young adults has the passion to want to make a difference, the insight to see where improvements can be made, and the drive to fill the gaps they have identified thus far. Krishnapillai summed up their goal as simply wanting to mobilize other young people. “I want Millennials and Gen Z to feel like their voice matters, and that they need to step up and do something. Not even that they have to step up and do something, but we want to make it easy for them to make that choice.”

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