The huge amount of misinformation circulating on the internet is causing a negative impact of its own.

COVID-19 is creating armchair health experts on social media and it needs to stop
Coronavirus Coronavirus Saturday, March 21, 2020 - 18:19

Did you feel personally attacked by that cartoon that was being shared widely last week, showing a man telling his wife that his Facebook friends who were Constitutional law experts last week have all now suddenly become infectious disease experts? That cartoon may have been originally published in an Italian newspaper on March 7, but it was alarmingly on-the-mark for the situation in India too, as we shifted from raging discussions on the Citizenship Amendment Act to COVID-19. But while we’re certainly entitled to having and sharing our own opinions on political issues, we do not get to have personal opinions on science and medicine. Science is best left to the scientists. 

Ever since the world woke up to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, our social media feeds have been flooded with information (and misinformation) on how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting infected. As everyone (who can afford to) shelters in place and gets online in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, we are each trying virtuously to help better the situation. While nothing feels as important, easy and effective at this time as forwarding thousands of health and safety tips to our friends and family members as we sit around bored at home endlessly refreshing our social media feeds, the huge amount of misinformation circulating on the internet is causing a negative impact of its own.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve all seen the random lists and false rumours going around: messages encouraging us to keep our throats wet by constantly sipping hot water (because the virus supposedly hates the heat and damp), which will also have the added benefit of washing the virus down into our stomachs where our digestive juices will murder it immediately (as if those affected by COVID-19 thus far have simply forgotten to swallow); that the virus will not spread in India due to its hot and humid climate (a larger-scale simulation of the hot-water-in-throat example); that it is immediately killed by temperatures higher than 26 degrees (which would imply that Qatar, which currently has over 450 active COVID-19 cases, should actually have no problem on its hands); that people can take antibiotics as a precaution to cleanse themselves of the virus (except antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses); or that eating garlic and turmeric will protect you at this time (while both are healthy foods, there is no evidence that eating them will guard you against this brand-new virus). Some rumours are so outlandish that it’s hard to tell whether they’re well-intentioned or satire, like the messages going around claiming that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s instructions to clap our hands and bang utensils on our balconies at 5 PM on the 22nd of March (a supposed dark, Amavasya day) is rooted in the scientific belief that the resulting vibrations will just simply stun the virus in its tracks and save the day.   

It isn’t just Indians who’ve been falling prey to the bug of misinformation: this interesting article by the BBC, for example, shows how one post full of coronavirus misinformation “hopped from the Facebook profile of an 84-year-old British man to the Instagram account of a Ghanaian TV presenter, through Facebook groups for Indian Catholics, to coronavirus-specific forums, WhatsApp groups, and Twitter accounts.” The English preacher Charles Spurgeon was certainly right when he said back in 1859 that “a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” 

The fact is, SARS-CoV 2 (the virus that causes the illness) is a novel, or brand-new, member of the coronavirus family of viruses. This means scientists and doctors themselves are slowly learning about the relatively newborn virus day-by-day, and are themselves hesitating to make many definitive statements about its nature, and so laymen like you and I are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Even scientists, frankly, are struggling to fully understand the virus right now: The World Health Organisation (WHO), currently the most reliable source of information on the pandemic, reversed its assessment of whether pets can contract the virus, and it was only a few days ago that scientists were able to definitively conclude that the virus originated through “natural processes”, and was not created in a lab. If scientists themselves are this flummoxed by the virus, and are only now making slow inroads into studying and understanding its nature, it is frankly laughable to think that we mere mortals are making such confident claims about the virus to our friends and family, having not entered a laboratory since class X. 

While some rumours we’re seeing may seem harmless or even amusing on the surface, the effects of such misinformation can be unforeseen and magnified. Isn’t it alarming to think that there could be people out there opting for the consumption of garlic as their chosen method of battling coronavirus, instead of washing their hands with disinfectant soap? If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it's that we are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and that the health of the community and all its members is linked to the health of the individual. 

More tangibly, these rumours can have cascading impacts on the world at large, and on the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. In India for example, one false rumour about coronavirus spreading through eggs and chicken meat as a result of a viral video traced back to a village in West Bengal, has resulted in what Union Minister of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Giriraj Singh has claimed is a daily loss of Rs 1,500-2,000 crore to the poultry industry. Poultry farm owners and dealers actually believe the amount to be much higher.

Rumours of imminent supermarket closures and country-wide shutdowns have led citizens worldwide to rush to their local stores and clear them of their stocks of non-perishables (and toilet paper in the West). The privileged few who are able to immediately purchase stocks of rice, onions and dal to last their families for two months could be inadvertently depriving another family of their food rations for the day or week.

The early messages incorrectly encouraging everyone to stock up on and use surgical face masks sent the governments of the world into a justifiable panic. While WHO guidelines later clarified that only those who were coughing or sneezing and those who were taking care of COVID-19 patients needed to wear masks, the social media forwards that preceded it had led to ordinary people panic-buying and hoarding precious masks, causing the French government to nationalise the production of face masks, China to ramp up its production of face masks by more than 20 times, and countries like Poland to ban the export of masks to other countries. (India, too, briefly banned the export of face masks after the first COVID cases were identified in Kerala, but reversed this decision in order to help out China.) 

This hysteria and hoarding of masks has caused a global shortage, which has had disastrous effects. For example, in India, there have been alarming reports of used surgical masks being washed and resold to meet surging demands, in addition to unnecessary price hikes on N95 masks. Worse still, in some countries, doctors are being asked to reuse masks for eight hours, instead of replacing them after two hours as is medically advised. All of this so that those of us uselessly sitting at home and walking to the supermarket can feel an added sense of safety that we don’t really need. These are the deadly kinds of impacts that thoughtlessly forwarding messages that sound reflexively sensible but are in fact not, can have. 

The global stock markets, which have been in free fall since the rise of COVID-19, are also clearly being affected by the panic. As indicated by the Indian stock market indices crashing the very day the first three new COVID cases were discovered in Kerala, the stock markets are not just reacting to the actual economic effects of the ongoing global shutdown of factories and workplaces, but to the panic and frenzy and expectation of disaster that accompanies it. 

The fact is, this is indeed both a highly critical and emotional time, and it's understandable that we want to help. It is hard not to feel emotionally overwhelmed in the face of such an unprecedented global occurrence, and it is largely our sense of well-intentioned fear that is driving us to participate in the spread of misinformation. But in this time of panic, where we are fighting battles on various fronts, from medical to economic, let us be mindful of the negative impact misinformation can cause, and understand that the most useful thing we laymen and non-medical-staff can do right now is stay put and not spread hysteria. If you are intent on spreading information and being useful at this time of crisis, restrict yourself to sharing verified updates from competent authorities, such as the WHO (which has launched a handy online chat helpline that you can access on WhatsApp), and official, verified announcements from your state and Central governments. Share news updates only from trusted news outlets, and do not mistake social media forwards for verified news, and check out this primer on how to spot fake news. At this crucial time, please leave the science to scientists, and do not pick this moment to play doctor.

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