The Hidden Epidemic Behind COVID-19: Rise of Myths and Misinformation

Dr Debanjan Banerjee

The world has been alarmed for over last two months by the growing scare of COVID-19 (the novel Coronavirus that started off in Wuhan, China), the outbreak that has been in the news almost everyday since mid-December, 2019. With around 75,000 affected in China alone and few hundreds more in 25 other countries, the virus has claimed over 2000 lives so far (as of present date). Panic and anxiety have driven masses all around, with travel and immigration restrictions being enforced at multiple places. The health forums both nationally and internationally are trying their best to curb this outbreak with ground-breaking research poured in every day to obtain a cure for this disease. Amidst this critical situation, another evolving crisis is surpassing the virus itself, that is the epidemic of misinformation, false news and fake messages related to COVID-19, its spread, treatment and statistics.

There has not been a single day for past few months that I myself have not received a video/message/meme/mail/snap related to the Corona virus scare. Barring a handful genuine recommendations about handwashing, prevention of stigma and videos from Wuhan itself, rest all others either are fake or convey a false message or are misinterpreted to generate wrong theories and facts. To give the recent most example, yesterday I received a video of thousands of chicken being discarded, followed by the snap of a chick having multiple eruptions on the body with a message stating that in West Bengal, these measures are being taken to restrict broiler chicken consumption as poultry are suffering from Coronavirus outbreak (the fact being that the video was shot in Malaysia in 2017 during the Bird flu outbreak and the chick showed signs of varicella virus infection: nowhere either message was related to the scenario in Bengal). Well, in majority of cases with our busy lives, we will simply get concerned and forward it to our friends and whatsapp groups. Targeting the wrong audience can be catastrophic in misinformation, which easily snowballs to affect a much larger and susceptible population. Following similar stories elsewhere in India, chicken sales have gone down by more than 30 percent in last one month (most affected being Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Bengal).

One other example are the numerous ‘Corona virus treatment centres’ that seem rampant in villages now (reported from Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh), which claim to have preventive and curative ‘magical remedies’ for the virus. Ironically many claim their genre to be ‘Ayurvedic’ or ‘Homeopathy’, while experts from both field have firmly denied any such proven evidence. In some cases, there are reports of psychiatric and neurological disturbances in patients who consumed such ‘herbal’ medications that apparently contain ‘high doses of steroids’. Our community mental health team had recently visited the North-eastern states for some collaborative work on suicide prevention. They communicated to us the distress, anxiety and frustration of rural people who often are resorting to the last limit of their finances to procure these over-priced ‘fake’ medicines, let alone the burden of travelling to the far off ‘treatment centres’. Rumour and hearsay can affect people irrespective of their socio-economic status and that gets compounded by the fear of ‘unknown’. The risk of ‘imminent death’ from the virus (which is again NOT TRUE) as well as desperate attempt to protect our loved ones from falling ill can lead us to modify our beliefs or turn to ‘more acceptable yet false’ medical claims. The flip side is that misinformation not only impedes the correct and necessary precautionary measures but at times also causes harm to health by faulty treatment.

The term ‘misinfodemics’ is quite popular now. It denotes the contribution of false facts and misinformation to the spread or maintenance of an illness. Being social beings there are certain costs that we pay for it. Communication, perception and interpretation of information are often modelled fast in our society, irrespective of its authenticity. With the advent of social media as a two-edged weapon for connectivity, this spread is fast and any news can go viral in seconds to minutes. Well-researched instances in the past have made us aware about the damage caused by misinfodemics: tuberculosis in India, vaccination failures in Malaysia, Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, the SARS outbreak in China and recently the Swine flu and Nipah virus outbreaks. It is well-known that adverse knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) related to vaccination can subsequently influence the herd immunity of a particular area. Incorrect disposition of fomites and tampons have increased the rates of tuberculosis, diptheria and sexually-transmitted illnesses in the past. Faulty information about needle-sharing and safe-sex practices (even after decades of advocacy for early sex-education) have contributed to the rise in Hepatitis C and AIDS as per the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) of India. The human mind plays a very confused role at times of crisis, especially in areas where adequate and authentic communication do not happen. Fear, anxiety, obsessional states about contracting the illness can contribute to wrong practices like faith-healing, over-the-counter prescriptions, self-medication or following hearsays and wrong facts leading to detrimental consequences. This occurs more during the outbreak of an infection which goes unchecked for long and does not have a definitive known cure: as is the case with COVID-19. We all tend to be more convinced with attractive and picturesque videos, elaborative memes, endorsement by authority figures and celebrities or heated but inconsequential discussion/debate on social media rather than a much simpler way of browsing through the online source of an authentic international public health forum like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Their sources get updated by the moment with well-documented precautionary measures and global statistics related to the outbreak.

I urge our readers to glance at the link provided below which holds the latest information on the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the safety details
https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.

Keeping this in background, let us look at the common myths prevalent with regards to the novel corona virus outbreak. It is vital to know that each of the points mentioned below are false or rumours and DO NOT have an adequate scientific basis or evidence. Many of these information are being widely circulated through messages/forwards/pictures/memes or simply public form conversations.

Infection spreads through eating chicken and sea foods

(Recent sporadic outbreak of Bird Flu in chicken in certain parts of India and China have fuelled this fear all the more)

Getting a cold/flu is akin to getting infected with Coronavirus

(Coronavirus is a separate infective agent altogether and needs exposure with an infected person to develop. Any other flu or influenza are separate illnesses. The recent increase in H1N1 influenza cases with symptoms common to the COVID-19 has created more confusion)

All forms of travel need to be stopped

(While restrictions are in place for travel mainly to the China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand: the most affected countries; travel within India is otherwise safe. Certain other countries of Europe and the U.S. are exercising various travel regulations for safety which need to be followed. Any travel across international boundaries need to be accompanied with necessary safety precautions)

Death happens inevitably with COVID-19 infection

(The mortality rate is only 2%, much lesser than the similar strains causing illness like SARS or MERS in the past. Majority of cases are mild infections and the number of uncomplicated cases are on the rise. Death occurs due to pulmonary complications, mainly pneumonia and respiratory failure. In any case, death is NOT imminent with this virus)

Consumption of hot water, herbs, garlic, turmeric, ginger and fresh fruits prevent/treat coronavirus infection (NO EVIDENCE FOR THE SAME)

Broad spectrum antibiotics are helpful against COVID-19

(No evidence again! A combination of drugs like Ritonavir/Lopinavir and Oseltamivir also used in HIV have been used with some success. Even transfusion of plasma from patients who recovered from COVID-19 has been tried with promise. But physicians have recommended against widespread use of antibiotics as it further increases the chance of secondary bacterial infections, hampering the immunity)

The virus is being spread by cattle and reptiles

(Some evidence of spread present only with the bats)

India has increasing number of COVID-19 cases

Till date India has reported only 4 cases with nil deaths. Even those who were returned from Wuhan were reported to have negative screening test from the Indian Institute of Virology, Pune. There are many suspicious cases at various places most of which are increasingly turning out to be negative.

Recommendation to Avoid Chinese Food and Restaurants

(Funny fact indeed but quite prevalent in many households: the Chinese food made here of course does not make its way from the China mainland!)

Conspiracy Theories

(Few days back, almost all the social media and news forums were busy with the alarm of Coronavirus being used as a biological weapon or ‘bio-hazard’ and videos showing leak of the virus from some secret Government facility went viral. Worldwide various agencies like the WHO, CDC, UN and the Chinese High Commission themselves have strongly denied any such claims. Same has been the reaction of scientists all over the world. While these news add to the selling points of an online forum as well as their popularity in heated debates, they are apt in causing mass hysteria, panic and tension worldwide further harbouring political unrest and mutual paranoia.

Major Precautions Recommended

(Protective N95 face masks, regular hand-washing, avoiding any contact with the infected person, coughing and sneezing hygiene, adequate isolation of the affected are the measures suggested. These need to be further implemented in high risk areas like international airports, shopping malls, restaurants, movie theatres and other public gatherings)

Sheehan while discussing health-related misinformation in 2012 mentions that “accidental messages can lead to deliberate miscommunication which turns into faulty or partial interpretation of the fact” that give rise to “half or altered” truths. While all of us indulge in putting forward our opinions in any health-related discussion, few really care to debunk a false news by verifying the authenticity of the fact. This is a collective responsibility, irrespective of our profession, expertise or social roles. In today’s world, where technology is literally a boon, there are enough genuine sources to help us correct our understanding about any scenario and set the facts straight.

There are even forums where we can connect with the experts (epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, virologists, etc.) seek for the right information. If each of us can take the onus on us not only to say NO to a ‘senseless forward’ but also to provide the alternative truth in relevant platforms, the crisis of misinformation-epidemic can be well dealt with.

Let us hold hands to pledge action against COVID-19 related myths and false-information spread, as much as the virus itself!

Author Dr. Debanjan Banerjee is associated with NIMHANS, Bangalore as Geriatric Psychiatrist.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of News Sense and News Sense does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. We won’t have a firm grasp on how life threatening the virus is until it rolls out in Nations that dont have a heavily censored source. However, that being said it is quite evident now that it is surfacing outside of China it is indeed a super spreader. How this will impact our Healthcare systems is becoming more clear. That impact will undoubtedly be the collapse of the system within a very short period of time. No health system anywhere has the resources to deal with the day to day pressures with a pandemic added to it. The result, many will perish with the ripple effect. Stroke, heart attack attack, the regular trauma patients etc etc will not get the treatments they need because of system overload and the sheer lack of medical resources. It has also been noted, that like SARS there is a high transmission rate to frontline healthcare workers. This too will add to the collapse of healthcare throughout the world. Yes, there is a lot of misinformation, however, if you’re paying attention to even the factual sources, their is overwhelming evidence that we are in a pandemic situation now. Waiting for the WHO to acknowledge that is nothing more than a formality. It is going to be up to every person to have their own supplies in order to look after themselves and their family as best you can because this will be beyond the scope of anything that any of us have seen within our lifetimes.

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