Even in regular times, India’s accredited social health activists (ASHA) have their hands full with providing everyday health advice and combating common diseases. Thanks to Covid-19, however, these essential workers have been forced to fight on yet another front: one of online misinformation.
Erroneous messages shared over social media platforms such as WhatsApp have plagued ASHA workers from the start of the pandemic; The often rural and less educated individuals they serve can be tremendously superstitious. The variety of the misinformation promoted through social channels ranges from claims that drinking cow urine cures Covid-19 to the dangerous idea that vaccines are population control.
ASHA workers spend hours a day scanning WhatsApp for signs of misinformation and responding to these threads with counterclaims. They make infographics, talk to local community members, and try to ensure that community members understand the true value of modern medicine. Despite pushback from many pseudoscience advocates, they continue to promote public safety, even without formal instructions or central organization.
For these ASHA workers, the battle against misinformation has been uphill every step of the way: “We didn’t get training on busting misinformation. We learned on the job and with interactions from the people,” one worker tells The Verge. Most ASHA employees are not even recognized by the government as full-time workers; they work for meager pay with limited resources and often take on side jobs as farmworkers.
Despite all this, most ASHA workers are proud to make a difference in their communities. While they encounter many messages from close-minded individuals, they also receive many from those who are thankful or ask to stay updated. Villages that are in contact with ASHA workers are likely to have fewer cases and fatalities. As one worker, who routinely works 10-12 hour days, puts it: “If I save someone, I will have done my job.”