COVID-19 Analysis (March 2021)

March 2021 has been a special month: it marks a year since the world began to see the effects of a rapidly spreading global pandemic. From freezing air travel to closing schools to lockdowns to curfews, the pandemic began to change the way we lived our lives. Worse still were the hospitalizations and deaths of so many people, the losses among our families and friends.

One year later, we are still living through these issues in some form. The rollout of vaccinations offers some hope, but the effects of the pandemic are far from over.

For most of the second half of 2020, we worked with the Ministry of Health (Uganda) to do social media analysis on public discussions about COVID-19. At this one year landmark, the Ministry of Health requested a follow-up analysis to find out what the Ugandan public generally thinks of the current state of events including the recently dropping numbers of recorded COVID-19 cases in Uganda, the rollout of vaccinations, the continuing curfew, and any other COVID-related issues.

We did the analysis on social media data (Twitter and Facebook), over a period of about 12 months, starting from March 2020 to the end of February 2021.

To carry out analysis, we developed a two-part system:

  1. A pipeline to fetch tweets from the Twitter API and posts from Facebook (through the CrowdTangle API) and store them for analysis.
  2. A machine learning model (our BERT classifier named SunBERT classifier) that we trained using these tweets/posts to predict whether a tweet is COVID-related or not.

Using Twitter’s new Academic Research API, we collected over 1.9 million Ugandan tweets in the period between March 2020 and February 2021. Using the SunBERT Classification Model we developed, we found that approximately 50,000 out of the 1.9 million tweets were related to COVID-19, and most of those were in during March and April 2020. Below is the monthly distribution of COVID-related tweets from our analysis:

Let’s look at an analysis of COVID-related tweets in Uganda over this time period:

It is evident that the discussion of COVID-related issues on Twitter was very high when the pandemic had just begun in March 2020 and has been steadily falling as the Ugandan public has become less and less interested in the pandemic discussion.

Comparing this trend alongside the number of new COVID cases in Uganda (according to Worldometers) reveals a surprising lack of correlation between the two. For example, there was a spike of cases in November but people had got tired of discussing COVID by then, as shown in the graph below:

What has been discussed recently?

Despite the relatively few tweets about COVID-19 in Uganda, there were still quite a number of interesting ones that revealed some underlying sentiments that Ugandans had about the pandemic. Let’s explore this in the following case study:

A case study of February 2021

In February 2021, only around 0.6% of tweets in Uganda were related to Covid-19.

Of these, some messages were expressing the pandemic in Uganda to be over, or not to be of significance, as the examples below show:

“Uganda Covid free 💪🏽”

“Now we register only 12 new cases of Covid 19? Small small 12?”

“What was the fear for. Covid was really hyped”

There were also some other themes of discussion that came up repeatedly. Below are a few examples:

Questioning the need for continued restrictions

“Why is there still a curfew in Uganda?”

“When will curfew be lifted? Asking on behalf of everyone.”

“Sincerely tweeting, why do we still have curfew in Uganda????”

Vaccine hesitancy

“Are we sure vaccines are safe anyway?”

“Do we really need #COVID19 vaccine as UGANDA?”

Testing – the associated expense and need to test

“Testing for covid19 in uganda… it’s like a privilege!”

“I’ve tested for covid 8 times since covid came. never tested positive. tonight i sit here to think about my ka money 😫”

Presence of Covid – Is it there or not? / We should live with it

“Do our leaders know that covid19 isn’t just  a “period” …. this thing is gonna hit us for a long time. We are gonna have to eventually learn how to live with it ….just like we did with HIV n a bunch of other diseases n conditions”

“Why would we import covid vaccines when covid does not exist in the country 🤔”

Let’s also take a look at the popular tweets within this time period. These seemed to mostly discuss the above topics, some by being very grave about it, and others by trying to present them in a comedic way. A look into a few of these tweets shows this:

Popular tweets from last 4 months (Feb 2021)

“One day I will tell you guys how my mom nearly married me off during the lockdown and how I had to sit her down and give her the “I am not like that kind of girl” speech 😹”

“I have seen great businesses and enterprises close during this Covid19. I have seen renown rich people struggle to provide for their families because their income has been frustrated. If you still have a meal everyday and a roof over your head, count yourself blessed.”

“If there is just one thing I pray for every day is that covid ends and SOPs for taxis are removed. The fact that the common man has to pay twice as much as they used to in order to go to work is heart breaking. I really pray that taxi fares go back to normal soon 🥺.”

“Aaaahhh… but African governments bought tents and cars when rich countries were investing in vaccine research.”

Conclusion

The analysis above has shown us the reducing interest in discussion about COVID-19 in the past months. One can only hope that that does not translate into the dismissal of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and all other safety measures, for the sake of our health in the midst of this pandemic.