When the SARS1 virus struck in 2002, the H1N1 virus in 2009 and the MERS2 virus in 2012, people heavily depended on traditional media sources for information and they – though slow – largely delivered. Times have changed quite a bit since. When the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus started infecting more and more people from December 2019, the most common sources of information in the world were – and are – WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, and ‘fake news’ is a dictionary term and news headlines on the TV are more about TRP than accuracy. Misinformation about the virus had reached India even before the virus did.
The WHO has recommended that masks should only be worn by healthcare workers; those with symptoms; and by those in close contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19. But the general public seems to have missed the point. For most of India, the principal sources for updates and medical information seem to be WhatsApp and Facebook, messages on which have convinced people that masks are necessary to protect themselves against the virus. At the same time, the same messages leave out important details about the masks, such as wearing it to cover the nose, to not fiddle with the masks, to change them every 4-6 hours and to avoid unsterilised or wet masks.
The misinformation even precipitated widespread panic buying, especially of hand-sanitisers, surgical masks and some other essential supplies, in cities and states where no cases had yet been reported. Consequently, healthcare facilities and frontline healthcare workers found themselves in a precarious position without proper supply and availability of masks, skyrocketing prices of those items that were available and, of course, disrupted supply chains.
The misinformation pandemic has also pervaded industries altogether unrelated to COVID-19 infection, such as poultry and seafood. People seem to be convinced that COVID-19 spreads through chicken and fish, and have thus avoiding non-vegetarian foods. Both the Chinese and Indian poultry industries have suffered major blows and many have developed racist and xenophobic sentiments against people of Asian origin around the world.
The Press Information Bureau, usually the principal information dissemination channel for the Government of India, has also drawn flak, along with the Ministry of AYUSH, for advocating treatments offered by alternative medicine systems like Ayurveda and homeopathy against the new coronavirus, without any supporting scientific evidence and or clinical testing data.
As more and more people get infected in the coming weeks, there will also be a growing need to be cautious and careful with what we read and believe. We need to adopt a balanced approach to delay or entirely avert the potential impact of the pandemic without causing panic or overburdening the healthcare system.
Just as the first steps to contain a virus outbreak are to identify and then quarantine infected individuals as fast as possible, the first step in good communication is to identify and eliminate misinformation while ensuring legitimate messages are disseminated through verified sources. Official communiqués from the government have to clear and unambiguous, and the government should roll out aggressive yet transparent information campaigns to raise awareness about COVID-19, including communicate risk, effective community practices and anti-stigmatising and anti-discriminatory behaviour.
Next, work with doctors at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response as well as research to develop messages about medical care, medicines, treatment protocols and personal hygiene instead of expecting politicians and celebrities to produce them.
The government should in all ensure people receive updates only from credible sources, including informed scientists and researchers, on infectious diseases, epidemiology, virology and public health. Announcements from the WHO, the US Centres for Disease Control and the Indian Council of Medical Research should be paramount. Any expert, media outlet or advertisement selling supplements or promoting behaviour without citing primary sources and/or reliable evidence should be considered to be promoting lies, misinformation and falsehoods. The government should keep a strict tab on this “infodemic”.
There needs to be public coordination of this scale to discourage anyone from making the situation worse than it really is, and to encourage the people to take responsibility for maintaining public hygiene and communication. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Let that not be our communication.
Ankit Raj is a junior doctor, blogger and freelance writer on healthcare issues such as system strengthening, global surgery and health policy. Follow him on Twitter @RajAnkit14.