The Coronavirus Infodemic
Over the past few days social media platforms have seen a whirlwind of text and graphics related to the coronavirus. Some messages go to the extent of saying that the virus was synthetically generated by scientists in Wuhan and therefore people must refrain from eating Chinese food. Others include claims that pandemics arise due to the electrification of the earth, or that clapping hands and lighting lamps can kill the coronavirus. The true facts that debunk these claims are just a Google search away, yet the convenience of sharing information with just the touch of a button and the false pride that comes with being the virtual messiah that clears everyone’s doubt motivate people to share these messages without checking the facts first.
Pseudoscience of this nature has proven to be dangerous during public health emergencies. The Ebola outbreak that occurred in 2014 in Africa is an example where the wide sharing of false and misleading information led to low compliance with messages from public health authorities and refusal to seek formal medical care (1). The COVID–19 pandemic is graver and more widespread than Ebola and, sadly enough, so is the rate in spread of false news and disinformation.
With the progressive spread of an epidemic, the spread of misinformation of all kinds, including rumors, gossip and unreliable information increases (2), heavily facilitated by the internet in the 21st century. In public health terminology, this phenomenon is referred to as an ‘infodemic’. Monitoring and controlling infodemics is especially challenging in the context of the Indian population, which is not only one of the largest but also exceedingly diverse in terms of religion, caste, language and economic class. The belief systems followed by some segments of the population can cloud their understanding of a disease as complex and new as COVID-19. This gives rise to gaps in the public’s understanding of the broader science of the outbreak.
COVID-19 cases and deaths are increasing as the days progress in our country. Although experimental drugs and a vaccine are in the pipeline, there is currently no definitive cure. As a consequence of this, bioscience academic journals have seen a surge in articles about the coronavirus, surrounding treatment, prevention and epidemiology, and many have committed to making research and data on COVID-19 freely available for the duration of the outbreak (3). While this comes as a boon for the medical community, whether it is a net benefit to the general public is yet unclear. Laypeople may be able to access open source information about the disease, but it is unreasonable to expect that they will be able to comprehend scientific language that even medical professionals sometimes find difficult to understand. The translation of journal articles that discuss deeply technical medical concepts and experimental results into the layperson’s language is a challenging task, particularly in India which has more than 22 languages and 720 dialects. Because of this, the debunking of false claims lags behind the spread of the infodemic.
There is a need for information that is easily understood and, more importantly, relevant to the language skill, educational level and cultural context of each individual. By collaborating with trusted figures such as community leaders, religious figures and community health workers, authorities, experts and first line response teams must quickly relay information to the public. Messages disseminated to the public must be supported by universally accepted guidelines and access to a reliable fact checking source should be made available to the public to verify forward messages.
The capacity to transform technical information into action-oriented messages requires the rapid interpretation of a complex social, cultural, political and economic situation to tailor the messages and communication channels to the needs of a mass audience, as well as the management of the associated infodemic of fear, concerns, rumors and misinformation. These measures, while important, are irrelevant without adequate public health infrastructure and resources at the state level. As health authorities struggle to curtail the spread of the disease, people are overwhelmed by medical data that they cannot comprehend and deluded by stories that appeal to intellectual laziness over the more arduous pursuit of scientific truth. Addressing this gap between science and society requires that public health officials and leaders prioritize policies and strategies related to it. Let us not wait till the next pandemic occurs to strengthen our public health system and health communication strategies.
(1) Vinck, P., Pham, P. N., Bindu, K. K., Bedford, J., & Nilles, E. J. (2019). Institutional trust and misinformation in the response to the 2018–19 Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DR Congo: a population-based survey. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 19(5), 529–536.
(2) World Health Organization. (2018). Managing epidemics: key facts about major deadly diseases. World Health Organization.
(3) Journals Open Access to Coronavirus Resources. (2020, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/journals-open-access-to-coronavirus-resources--67105