Harvard students hope a mob mentality can raise malaria awareness

Mob Malaria

Cambridge, MA – You might stumble upon a strange flash mob today if you happen to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts;  Changsha, China; or Harare, Zimbabwe. Large groups of young people will act in unison, mostly in silence, as they follow the directions played over their phones.

It will probably look odd and you might not suspect that it is because today is World Malaria Day.

Thousands of young people will participate in Mob Malaria, an awareness raising campaign developed by Stephen Turban and Lily Zhang, two Freshmen at Harvard University.

The pair have brought together a diverse set of groups on campus, from comedy groups to the school of public health, to develop a program that is fun for people participating and effective in raising awareness. Events in China and Zimbabwe, developed through serendipitous relationships, will also feature people participating in the flash mob.

The final product is the result of the Harvard Defeating Malaria Competition set out by the Defeating Malaria initiative at the university and backed by the MCJ Amelior Foundation, Malaria No More and the UN Envoy for Malaria.

Turban and Zhang individually were interested in creating an on-campus event for World Malaria Day. Global health was the drawing factor for Zhang, while it was the opportunity to participate in a campaign that reached his peers that caught Turban’s attention. The two attended an information session, where they met for the first time.

“We noticed a trend in awareness campaigns,” explained Turban to Humanosphere. “There is a them of suffering and that does not reverberate with people who are our age.”

They could name campaigns that stood out for the depiction of suffering around the world. Problem is, those are the kinds of things that are not great for sharing with friends. How can an effort to raise awareness about malaria be memorable and shareable?

An interest in flash mobs provoked the idea to try that out for the competition. Turban and Zhang developed their own script and had the panel of judges join them in doing goofy actions while learning about malaria. The admittedly unlikely pair won over the group and were picked to carry out their campaign.

They Defeating Malaria initiative plugged them into the academic resources. They also had the opportunity to learn from UN Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals and For Malaria Ray Chambers. Lessons were learned about malaria and managing a group of volunteers in order to complete the project.

To get people interested in malaria and the event, Mob Malaria turned to some of Harvard’s comedy groups. Satire V has the keys to the social media in the lead up to today. Posts on Facebook and Twitter have involved clever text and images that tie together popular culture and malaria. A recent post has a picture of famed Chicago gangster Al Capone complimented by the quote, “I met some of my best friends in mobs!”

Another image is of a decision making tree that leads Harvard students to participate in today’s flash mob.

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The script that will be heard around the world was developed in collaboration with another campus comedy group, On Harvard Time. Today’s event will be videotaped by more volunteers through the school and a video will be made in the next few days. The people who take part will then see themselves and be more willing to share the video.

One action might be a game of freeze tag where the people caught represent individuals who have contracted malaria. People will be freed in a way that connects to the treatment of the parasite, thus connecting a real life action with a fun game. Turban and Zhang did not want to give away too much as to what will happen, but both were happy with the script.

“Basically every action that is done has some relation to the overall message of spreading awareness  and informing participants on not just about malaria, but what is going well and what is failing,” said Zhang.

The impact of today’s event on the students at Harvard is yet to be determined, but it has already made a mark on both Turban and Zhang. Turban will be spending his summer in Rwanda and Zhang will be at Harvard working as social media specialists for the Harvard Global Health Institute.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.