Sugan Naidoo.
Sugan Naidoo.
  • Maths teacher Sugan Naidoo started tweeting about Covid-19 out of boredom during lockdown - when he had just 35 followers.
  • Today, he has more than 20,000 followers.
  • His dedication and colourful, easy to understand graphs and charts quickly captured the attention of doctors, journalists, and politicians looking to make sense of the pandemic in South Africa.
  • Naidoo believes his teaching skills are what sets his Covid-19 communication apart from official government communication.
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When Durban-based maths teacher Sugan Naidoo started tweeting about the Covid-19 pandemic in April last year, he had just 35 followers. Eighteen months later, he has over 23,000 followers - among them some of the country's most respected doctors, journalists, and politicians. 

And despite not having any specific knowledge about medicine, Covid-19, or pandemics, after building a loyal following with his colourful tables and clear and concise Covid-19 data analytics, he's been asked for advise about the peaks of the next waves and spoken to provincial Covid-19 response teams about how best to communicate messages around the pandemic to the general public.

Naidoo's jump from unknown Twitter user to leading Covid-19 tweeter is due to a combination of lockdown boredom, frustration with official Covid-19 reporting, persistence, and his ability to deliver a clear and concise message due to his experience as a maths, and maths literacy teacher.

Like Covid Twitter rival Ridhwaan Suliman, Naidoo initially started tweeting the latest Covid-19 figures in April last year. He started out of sheer boredom while under hard lockdown with little to do, and he grew increasingly frustrated with the complex way the Department of Health was presenting statistics around Covid-19 case numbers and deaths.

With a BSc in Applied Mathematics and as a respected teacher in maths and maths literacy, Naidoo thought he could far better translate the growing pool of data released by the Department of Health into tweets that would be far easier to understand.

"Even today, the Department of Health's infographics don't show how many Covid-19 cases there are per province. They just show total cases and total deaths. When you show totals, it's largely meaningless - because it doesn't give you a sense of the current situation," Naidoo told Business Insider South Africa.

For the most part, Naidoo believes that the Department of Health, and various provinces, don't understand the audience they are speaking to - or how to convey simple data to the general public. 

Naidoo channelled his annoyance and boredom into action and started compiling daily tweets from complex official data in a way that his 35 followers might find more useful.

"In those days, I would have to get a calculator and subtract the number of cases from the day before to see how we're doing. I hardly used Twitter, so I didn't expect anything to happen, but I started posting my stats under then health minister Zweli Mkhezi's posts, and it grew from there," says Naidoo.

He didn't think the pandemic - or his tweeting - would last long, so he invested several hours each day into doing something new and different that he hoped would capture the attention of other Twitter users concerned about Covid-19.

"I had to try and find new things all the time to build my audience, so the first two or three months I spent up to six hours a day trying to build the graphs and tables and looking for new information," he says.

Now nearly 18 months into tweeting about Covid and with a growing following above 20,000 followers, Naidoo has found a set routine for the week to balance his tweeting with his day job. 

"I just don't have the time to come up with new things, but generally, over a week, I feel that what I do covers most of the important stuff," he says.

Naidoo's general approach hasn't changed much from the early days, though. His now-familiar tables highlight case, death, vaccine, and hospital breakdowns for each province, and he uses bold colours to highlight changes in either direction. 

He also regularly posts line graphs and other charts that showcase an array of essential statistics - such as average case numbers, test numbers, and positivity rates - and provides a brief analysis on anything that stands out.

Although he doesn't have a social media strategy, or any direct training in the medium, Naidoo believes his experience as a maths literacy teacher has helped him communicate these messages clearly and reliably.

"The main thing about social media is that most people are scrolling, and only if something catches their attention will they spend 10, 15, or maybe 30 seconds on it. So if you only have a half-minute to engage with people, the best way to capture their attention is with colour. This is why you'll always see colour on everything I do," Naidoo says.

"In that short space of time, you want to convey as much information to users as possible, so what you write has to be kept simple - you want to try and keep it in bitesize form. This is why I like to use bullet points - it's easier to read a bullet point than a long tweet. And you have to include a graphic - I'll rarely post a tweet without a graph or a table," he says. 

His school teaching ability has also helped him deal with another big hurdle in the online world - trolls. As he gained some prominence on Twitter, he says the most challenging thing was the people who would test him. 

"I've noticed that anything I comment on or like or retweet, there are lots of other people who will take an interest in that. It's basically like in the classroom - you get some children who just want attention from you, and they'll do things deliberately to irritate you. And they'll try and get a reaction out of you. I compare these people to those children in a class," Naidoo says.

Although Naidoo shies away from offering specific advice around Covid-19, he believes his compiled stats can help followers take action and make some vague predictions.

"But then if there's a new variant, for example, it just throws everything off, and then the predictions will be all over the place again," he says. "So I try to stay away from predictions as far as possible. I prefer to focus on where we are now, and short term in one or two weeks time."

Even so, Naidoo recently spoke to the Western Cape government about communicating statistics on Covid-19 - and he says this ideally will be his focus from now on.

"I would like to teach the government about how to better communicate to people, just in general. I feel that government sometimes doesn't know how to approach situations like these, and I'd like to explain that the way you present information like this to the public needs to change," Naidoo says.

Identifying reliable Covid sources on Twitter

As misinformation continues to spread on social media, particularly regarding vaccines, experts continue to caution that it's critical to be discerning when it comes to trusting information on platforms like these.

According to the BroadReach Group, which runs public health programmes in Africa on behalf of donor organisations and governments, it's important to be vigilant when it comes to identifying information on social media that is trustworthy - particularly during the pandemic. 

The senior BroadReach team, which includes a number of globally recognised public health experts and medical doctors, highly rate the World Health OrganisationJohns Hopkins UniversityNICDOur in DataWorldThe Lancet Journal, and the New England Journal of Medicine, among others, for reliable updates on the coronavirus pandemic.

A BroadReach spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa that social media users should ask three questions that will help determine "good yardsticks for credibility": 

  • Is this information based on the most credible and recent science and peer-reviewed research?
  • Is the information from a globally recognised public health or health research institution or academia that promote the mission of equitable, universal healthcare, and act in the public's best interest?
  • Is the info from a credible global media outlet and not from an obscure blog or unknown source?

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