As in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, these early days of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic see healthy concern plagued by rumors and prejudice.
Unlike the era of the HIV/AIDS crisis, today we have the technology to send both private and public messages instantaneously around the globe, whether positive or negative, true or false. The spread of misinformation sows fear and stirs panic when what’s needed is accurate information and level-headed action.
Fighting False Information
This unfortunate state of affairs is pointed out in a public letter posted to the open access journal BMC Medicine by Areeb Mian and Shujhat Khan, neurosurgeons at the Imperial College of London.* Their statement of solidarity asserts their support of researchers and health professionals worldwide who are actively fighting the coronavirus, and also denounces the fear-mongering and false information rapidly spreading through social and mainstream media. Dramatic headlines and claims grab more readers, but at the cost of a safe, well-informed public.
False Information More Popular Than Truth
“Misinformation has spread far and wide,” the authors write, “drowning out credible sources of information.” They go on to cite some astonishing statistics: over the past couple of months, online posts made by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have managed only a few hundred thousand engagements, while “hoax and conspiracy theory sites” have achieved more than 52 million.
While some of the hoaxes and theories out there are laughable and relatively benign, others combine fear and false information in deadly ways.
Despite scientific findings to the contrary, some of the coronavirus myths being perpetuated online include:
- the virus being artificially created in a lab by a rogue government
- vitamin C and garlic being miracle remedies for COVID-19
- drinking bleaching agents to prevent getting the virus
The last item was acted upon, resulting in at least one recorded death.
Call to Action
Mian and Khan admonish both the creators and consumers of inaccurate, inflammatory COVID-19 “news” content, along with unclear, inconsistent leadership that enables misleading and potentially deadly content to thrive.
The authors call on world governments to do the following:
- Governments must communicate clear, accurate information to educate the public and discourage reliance on non-scientific sources.
- Governments must be transparent and consistent in their messaging.
- Politicians should not politicize this pandemic or any other health issues.
- Governments and health organizations should dispense the same information in the same way so as to reinforce its clarity and significance.
For more information, see the full text at BMC Medicine online.
*Mian, A. & Khan, S. (2020, March 18). Coronavirus: the spread of misinformation. BMC Medicine Open Access, 18(89).