Should We Let Social Media Influencers Into ICU Wards?

News about the impending COVID-19 pandemic is everywhere. Over the weekend many of us swiped through Instagram posts with increasing alarm, monitored news forwards on WhatsApp groups with dread and even reached out to friends and family all across Kerala.

In the midst of all of this, the main thought in my head was: It’s time to let social media influencers into ICU wards.

After 13 months of breathless coverage, everyone is experiencing fatigue when it comes to news about the pandemic. 

Those who are terrified of losing their loved ones will rightly retort that “fatigue” isn’t a valid excuse for putting lives at risk by ignoring health guidelines.

Sadly, the credibility of their indignation will be questioned by some who view matters through a particular political, economic or religious lens. “Why didn’t you say anything when (insert particular organization) gathered for (insert particular event)?”

Thus, fatigue and cynicism work together to fuel a pandemic.

Right now it seems all that is done to combat the former is more stats and more anecdotal stories from more healthcare professionals, whereas skirmishes often break out on comment sections regarding the latter (and achieve exactly what they’ve always achieved…nothing.)

But what if instead, we gave social media influencers access to Intensive Care Units all across Kerala?

No, not so that they can cheer up dying patients by dancing to Enjoy Enjaami. Instead, they could give us access into a world that is currently only represented through words and numbers.

What comes to mind when you think of the second wave that India is currently experiencing? You’ve probably seen several graphs that show how the curve was falling from last September, before rising back up again.

It’s a graph you’ve seen for 13 months now. How much does it terrify you?

What if instead, the only imagery that came to mind was that of a gasping patient, speaking to you from a chaotic ICU ward, tubes down her throat, tears streaming and voice quivering? What if that’s the clip that played in your mind for the next few weeks, whenever your friend complained about being bored at home and wanting to grab a few beers after work?

The idea of letting social media influencers record the last days of those dying from COVID-19 might sound morbid, even morally reprehensible. Cynics can ask if this is what it takes to get “views” in today’s crowded internet landscape.

But this is not a completely new idea. A version of it has already been done before.

How many of you remember Debi Austin?

Even if the name doesn’t strike a chord, the imagery might. Debi Austin appeared in a television commercial in 1996, talking to the camera while smoking a cigarette by holding it to a hole in her throat.

Yes, it was graphic. But the ad worked.

It helped to rattle audiences and proved so effective in terms of smoking cessation that the ad was replicated many times all over the world.

The camera wasn’t stuck in front of Debi Austin’s face without her consent. Or so that the commercial could gain viewers by exploiting her pain. She was a willing participant.

Isn’t it safe to say that there are many COVID-19 patients in Kerala right now who, if given the chance, would welcome the opportunity to convince their fellow Malayalis of the enormity of the crisis they are facing? Not for the sake of the Kerala Government or because the hospital insists they do, but simply so that their own loved ones won’t have to spend a night in the crowded ICU unit.

The example of Debi Austin might raise the question: why use social media influencers? Why not just allow media channels access to ICU wards?


A question that answers that question would be: how many viral videos have media channels created in the past 24 months?

Social media influencers have the ability to create content that can reach a cross section of society. Videos that will be shared by youngsters on Instagram, which will then migrate over to WhatsApp till their parents see it a few weeks later.

We need such a medium of communication right now. The time for graphs and statistics is over. Words, no matter how poignant in the moment, just cannot break through to jaded audiences.

Many in Kerala lament that “Aalkaark Corona Onnum Vishayamalla Ippo” (For many, Coronavirus isn’t an issue anymore)

But a startling video, shot in a raw manner, exposing the truly horrific nature of this virus, might make a difference.

Musthafa Azeez
Indian born and raised in Qatar and currently making plans to be buried in Canada. Voracious reader, avid cinephile, self-published author of a crime novel and a freelance journalist.

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