Blog: The Corona infodemic

As the Corona virus scare grips the globe, a little less than the entirety of it has been forced to confront an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation. Given that many people are sequestered in their homes as health officials bombarded them with the advisories to maintain social distancing by avoiding public areas, employers initiate remote-work rules, and schools to cancel classes, much of the pandemic’s discourse is happening online, giving liars and pandemic profiteers the opportunity to seize on the frantic search for some bit of new and uncommon piece of information. But it’s not only grifters hawking sham cures and fake news, it is hoarders of essential protective equipment and this new herd of disaster entrepreneurs thereof emerging as a challenge across the globe and particularly in India, amidst the pandemic din.

Since initial reports of novel Corona virus (known in public health circles by the moniker COVID-19) started emerging earlier this year, the response on social media has ranged widely from measured caution to unabated panic. There’s been this blood-bath across global stock markets, and although cases in China are falling, other countries are reporting more number of cases. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped people from circulating rumours and misinformation about the virus, with a healthy dose of rabid conspiracy theorizing and racism-tinged paranoia to boot. The fact that the virus appears to have originated in China seems to have lent a fillip to this opportunity of spreading misinformation, says Jen Grygiel, assistant professor in communications at Syracuse University and goes to say that when psychological states are peaked and people are anxious, anxiety blurs the better sense of judgement and they’re more apt to share inaccurate information. And because there’s heightened scepticism on social media about the official narratives issued by the government, this has contributed to a deep sense of anxiety and fear where misinformation can thrive. This hysteria has moved from the digital spaces in the US to the rest of the world, asking Africans to shave their beard and the Asians to seek divine interventions through chanting to ward off the tiny organism. Rumour mills are at an all time high.

A viral Face book post-dated January 22nd this year for instance contains a screenshot of a patent filed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for what is purported to be a Corona virus vaccine, suggesting that the virus was introduced by the US government for pharmaceutical companies to profiteer off the vaccine. While this makes no sense on even the most superficial level, novel Corona virus is, by definition, brand new, so it would be impossible for there to already be a vaccine for it, the screen grabbed patent actually applies to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another type of Corona virus that also originated in China and killed hundreds of people in 2002 and 2003. Although there have been reports of companies receiving funding to developing a vaccine for n-CoV, currently there are no vaccines available for any Corona viruses let alone the Wuhan one.

“The virus is no worse than the common cold”. This myth was espoused by none other than the US Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh on his radio show on February 24th. “It looks like the Corona virus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the Corona virus. I’m dead right on this. The Corona virus is the common cold, folks.” He went on to claim that the media was drumming up panic about COVID-19 purely to undermine the Trump administration. “They are trying to use this Corona virus to scare the hell out of everybody in their madcap hopes of finding something that will get rid of Donald Trump. It’s exactly like the panic and fear mongering you heard for two years over Russia meddling in and stealing the election.” When public figures with wide reach dish out half-truths like this the potency to create panic is beyond manageable proportions.

Truth is COVID-19 is not the common cold, for numerous reasons. Apart from manifesting with a completely different set of symptoms (fever, cough, etc.) it also has a mortality rate of about little more than 2 percent, which the common cold does not. The reason why Limbaugh may have made that claim, however, is because COVID-19 is a type of Corona virus, an umbrella term used to describe a group of viruses including the common cold. This is a very basic fact about the Corona virus. But we are, after all, talking about irresponsible public discourse here. Confirmation-bias seems to have been reinvigorated with a new lease here. WhatsApp forwards hailing Dettol’s previous knowledge about the outbreak is the latest entrant to a series of tales by conspiracy theorists. And the magical cures range from good old garlic to the exotic colloidal silver.

When it comes to major world events, it’s not uncommon for enterprising sleuths to dig deep into fictional sources to find a premonition, however tenuous it may be. Few weeks ago a screen grab of a passage from author Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel ‘The Eyes of Darkness’ went viral on Twitter, as the passage appears to allude to the creation of a deadly virus known as Wuhan-400, named after the city from which it originated. Except for the pointer to Wuhan, there is nothing common between Wuhan-400 and COVID-19. Also the book had no mention of it in the first edition. Unlike COVID-19, which has about a little more than 2% fatality rate, Wuhan-400 kills 100% of its victims, mostly by creating a toxin that literally eats away brain tissue, rendering its victims pulse less. So while it may be tempting for proponents of the COVID-19 as bio weapon theory to point to Koontz’s book as a harbinger of events to come, it appears the parallels between the two are tenuous at best. Still, there’s no shortage of other works of fiction for armchair COVID-19 detectives to point to. Public health experts have been time and again underscoring the fact that there’s nothing much that the scientists know about the virus and it’s heat resistant character. So, disseminating fake information on the subject would amount to driving people in certain direction of preventive line, which we don’t know may be wrong, unimportant or hazardous in the least.

This one’s a little trickier, and varies from country to country. The CDC has said that Americans who are healthy do not need to wear face masks, public health experts have rather warned that masks could actually increase the risk of infection if they aren’t worn properly. Those who should ideally wear masks are people who already are infected by the new Corona virus and could potentially infect others, those caring for an infected patient in close settings and health care workers. Authorities across Asia, who have been dealing with the virus for months, have urged that people wear surgical masks particularly on public transportation or in other crowded places to prevent transmission of the virus. To determine whether you need to wear a mask or not, it’s best to check the latest guidance issued by the country’s health authorities. In India Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has been educating the public through their ‘help us to help you’ campaign. It is critical to direct the public attention towards accurate advisories. But the Indian digital platforms are abuzz with fake and unverified posts on how wearing masks is a single-shot remedy to fight COVID-19, pushing traders to hoard, spike prices and spread panic. More often than not, such ‘concerned advice’ is well intentioned, but the harm such misleading posts can cause can be fatal.

Countries like Singapore have initiated stringent measures to fight false assertions on Corona. Few arrests have already been made by Indian Police authorities. Utter Pradesh Police arrested a fake god man called ‘Corona wale baba’ and Telangana Police booked three persons under section 54 of National Disaster Management Act, 2005 for spreading a false warning. Much of our focus on containing misinformation is directed to the online medium. Shockingly, even some broadcast journalists have peddled misinformation that the virus does not affect children. Do It Yourself (DIY) detection kits have become another digital nuisance.

Bad information is bad for democracy. At this juncture, people do not need digitally processed miracle mineral solutions, but carefully crafted accurate scientific information. We must act responsibly in times like these to empower public institutions to share reliable source of information on a real time basis. For all we know, fake news may infect more people than the actual virus if we don’t step in and debunk.

(Rema Rajeshwari has co-authored this article with  Dr. Suneem Ahmad Khan, who is senior medical officer, CRPF, Srinagar)

Courtesy: Times of India