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A Time to Lean In: COVID-19 Presents a Prime Opportunity to Reinforce Messages about Healthy Behaviors

About the Authors: This blog was written by Sharan Kuganesan, MSc, a Program Manager at Vital Strategies and Julia Berenson, MSc, a Technical Research Writer at Vital Strategies.

Across the globe, government lockdown orders, social distancing protocols, and self-isolation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 have heightened the desire for human connectivity, resulting in increased media consumption [1]. With media coverage shifting overwhelmingly to COVID-19, some believe that messaging around other public health issues may not resonate widely. However, the pandemic is demonstrating the media’s potential to keep us connected and informed about related health issues, including noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease [2-3]. Given that noncommunicable diseases greatly increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, becoming severely ill, and dying from it [3], this is a pivotal moment for health leaders to leverage the public’s high levels of media engagement to reinforce messages about healthy behaviors, including quitting tobacco, reducing alcohol use, eating healthy diets, and engaging in physical activity.

Historically, public health communication, including mass media campaigns, are a proven way to promote health knowledge, change attitudes, and deter people from initiating unhealthy behaviors [4]. Evidence shows that during crises, a higher level of attention is given to media and public messages that ultimately have a positive impact on health behaviors [5-7].

Since the onset of COVID-19, emerging data from global polls show that television, radio, and digital media consumption has risen dramatically, indicating that communication efforts are more likely to resonate in this moment. In China, the first country to experience COVID-19, TV viewing rose from 70 minutes to an unprecedented 7 hours and 40 minutes per day [8]. In the U.S. and U.K., 87% and 80% of consumers, respectively, say they are consuming more TV and online videos since the COVID-19 pandemic [9]. South Africa witnessed TV viewership increase by 60% and radio listening increase by 42%, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic [10]. For the first quarter of 2020, Twitter reports that its daily active users increased globally by 23% from the previous quarter, which analysts attribute to increased social media use during COVID-19 [11]. China also experienced a 58% increase in use of local social media apps including WeChat and Weibo [12].

An overwhelming number of people are turning to digital and phone platforms to search for health-related information including how to change behaviors [1, 9]. Google Trends analyses confirm that COVID-19-related searches worldwide have become the most popularly searched terms, far exceeding searches about other news, weather, or politics [13]. The term “smoking + COVID” saw its peak popularity worldwide with Google scores reaching between 93 and 100 in March-May 2020 [14]. Correspondingly, in the U.K., 300,000 people may have already quit smoking due to COVID-19 concerns; a further 550,000 have tried to quit; and more than 2.4 million say they have cut back on smoking [15]. Following a tobacco ban in South Africa, calls to the national tobacco quit line doubled since the onset of COVID-19, with an increase in requests to join WhatsApp community support groups for smokers [16]. Multiple states across the U.S, such as Vermont, have seen calls to the statewide tobacco quit line rise by 41% [17]. Alcohol Change U.K. saw a 400% increase in the number of people visiting its website to request professional help for alcohol use in April 2020 [18]. Besides turning to media for information on how to change tobacco and alcohol behaviors, in the U.S., 18% of adults reported they participated in an online fitness class or did an online workout video at home as result of COVID-19 [12]. Almost one-third of American adults (32%) say they have ordered food online or through an app from a local restaurant since COVID-19, and 21% of Americans say they have ordered groceries online or through an app from a local store [19]. Record levels of media engagement related to health behaviors make this a critical moment to advocate for important public health messages around both noncommunicable diseases and COVID-19 [20].

Despite significant attention to COVID-19, governments, public health officials and global health organizations are uniquely positioned to leverage captive, engaged audiences and continue investing in mass media that calls attention to noncommunicable diseases and the risk factors that contribute to them—in particular, tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity.


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