The coronavirus outbreak has led to another, more insidious pandemic: an “infodemic” of false information and wild conspiracy theories. Rumors and false truths tend to run rampant during public health emergencies and times of financial crisis. As individuals start to feel like they’re losing control over parts of their everyday lives, some will turn to unvetted stories and manipulative headlines for any kind of information they can get their hands on.
Misinformation can be deadly. It may prevent some individuals from adhering to the latest coronavirus prevention guidelines, accelerating the spread of the virus. It can turn various religious and ethic groups against one another as individuals look for someone to blame. It can also drive a wedge between nations, political groups, and organizations.
The Head of the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres, recently warned that the world is facing “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation” about COVID-19. He’s urging social media companies, the press, and leaders in healthcare and government to fight the spread of misinformation while reestablishing the public’s trust in these institutions.
The Rise of the “Infodemic”
Misinformation tends to follow pandemics and emergencies wherever they go. Some may use the situation to spread their own personal beliefs, while others may see an opportunity to make money. In other situations, misinformation may simply fill the void of what the experts still don’t know. Rumors and conspiracy theories can spread like wildfire, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.
During the Black Plaque, rumors started spreading that Jews poisoned the wells of the Christians. In the age of the 1918 Influenza, some believed the Germans had created the virus as an act of war. More recently, the Ebola outbreak was mischaracterized as a biological weapon designed to kill off Africans.
Today, misinformation about the coronavirus is coming from all sides, including the leaders of third-world countries, social media accounts, various press outlets, and even the President of the United States.
In the end, misinformation muddies the waters, making it difficult for people to discern what’s true and what’s false. Some people may tune out information about the coronavirus all together, while others may pick and choose which stories they want to listen to. Honest, correct public health information may be our best defense against the pandemic.
Common Assumptions and Rumors about the Virus
Let’s take a minute to dispel some common rumors about the coronavirus:
- Face masks should only go to healthcare providers
The U.S. government and other health agencies have been going back and forth on whether the general public should wear face masks. Healthcare providers have been running low on personal protective gear for weeks, but as the country gets closer to the apex of the pandemic, the CDC says that every American should wear a face covering when going outside.
The average person can easily make their own mask or wear a scarf over their face when shopping for groceries. This limits the spread of the virus, protecting both the person wearing the mask and anyone they may encounter.
- A cure is available
We’ve heard a lot of talk about a potential cure for COVID-19, including Remdesivir and chloroquine. While some providers have received approval from the FDA to use these drugs as a possible treatment for the virus, more testing is needed. The healthcare industry is still several months away from developing a cure or proving the efficacy of these drugs.
- The coronavirus was created in a lab
Despite the rumors, the coronavirus was not created in a lab. It’s also not being used as a weapon of war. Countries across the globe are struggling to contain the outbreak. While the President of the U.S. has referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” it knows no nationality or political party.
Thanks to these rumors, the U.S. has seen a spike in the number of hate crimes against the Asian American community over the last few weeks. The FBI has warned of a potential surge in cases as some put the blame on those of Asian descent.
Scientists currently believe the virus came from an animal, likely a bat. Once the virus jumped from the animal kingdom to humans, it developed pathogenic properties, allowing it to quickly spread from person to person.
- Ibuprofen worsens symptoms
We’ve also heard rumors that OTC pain relievers, including ibuprofen, can worsen fever-like symptoms in patients suffering from the coronavirus. The French Ministry of Health even sent out a warning, but this proved to be premature. Right now, the World Health Organization does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen.
- Children are immune to the virus
Data suggests that those younger than 18 years of age may experience the virus differently than older individuals. Cases in children may be less severe and their symptoms may be slower to develop, but children are by no means immune to the coronavirus. Minors account for around 2% of hospitalizations in the U.S., but they can easily spread the virus to other individuals, including family members and friends. Some children and young people may have the virus without realizing it if their symptoms are mild.
However, several children have passed away due to coronavirus-related symptoms. Of the reported cases among those under the age of 18, around a fifth have been hospitalized, compared to around a third of adults that come down with the virus.
Tips for Correcting False Stories and Conspiracy Theories
- Direct your family, friends, and colleagues to reliable, unbiased sources of information.
- Do not respond to false stories on social media, as it may create an echo chamber. Many people post online to create controversy and garner attention.
- Use social media and your organization’s website to combat false information online. Reach out to the public with the latest facts and prevention guidelines.
- If you get emotional after looking at a news story, take a minute to process your thoughts and check the source before reposting, commenting, or sharing online.
- Avoid websites and people on social media that share false or misleading stories.
We can all do our part to combat the spread of harmful, unproven information. Keep these tips in mind to make sure your patients listen to facts, not propaganda.