Author: Alyssa Khoo
Whether you’re actively seeking out data on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) or happen to stumble across someone’s Instagram post, all sorts of articles and graphics bombard you with information on statistics, symptoms, how the public and the government is responding and what you can do to reduce the spread. While this incredible speed of sharing data is advantageous in many ways such as raising awareness and allowing scientists to communicate with one another, the public is rarely given a chance to pause in their panic and question the accuracy of this information.
Throughout all the pandemics the world has faced, never before has information been so easily accessible to the public. This idea of misinformation is uncharted territory and has proven to be incredibly dangerous.
What is misinformation and how has it affected public response?
With modern technology, it is easy for information to be twisted or altered slightly in tweets or Whatsapp chains, just like Chinese whispers. Facts tend to get muddled, possibly making the situation appear much worse than it actually is or even, downplaying the seriousness of it.
A lack of understanding of science also makes the public more susceptible to misinformation. This means that there is an inability to recognise misinformation, making them more likely to believe the data on their screens. Lack of media literacy can play into this; readers often have to look beyond the eye-catching, biased headlines and emotional exploitation in news articles to identify misinformation.
Articles comparing COVID-19 to the flu are good examples of the harm information without correct scientific-basis can do. These comparisons may result in people becoming less vigilant, disregarding vital prevention methods such as hand washing and social distancing. Since some are familiar with the influenza virus, they may trivialise the Coronavirus as they subconsciously believe that they already understand COVID-19.
Furthermore, many celebrities have taken to sharing information about the Coronavirus on social media platforms. Although this is successful in increasing the range of people informed about the outbreak, it is important to fact-check this data. Often people tend to be more receptive when information comes from a source they respect or trust.
Not only can misinformation result in drastic emotional responses, but it can also be very deadly. This is particularly true if the information is about prevention or a response from the public to the Coronavirus.
Recently, Donald Trump claimed that chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, is an effective treatment for COVID-19 despite not being approved for use on COVID-19 cases by the US Food and Drug Association (FDA). His claims meant that an Arizona man’s self-medication of chloroquine resulted in his death from overdose. Although chloroquine appears to be effective against Coronavirus in the lab, it has not been approved for safe medical use on COVID-19 patients. Vague and unsupported claims such as Trump’s can prove truly fatal to the public.
Many hoaxes about what can be used to ‘kill’ the Coronavirus have circulated globally. With misinformation being most prevalent on social media and SMS chains, fake news disguised as "cures" to the virus is ineffective and unsafe. Misconceptions about the disease and who it affects are also profoundly widespread.
A Few Common Misconceptions:
1. Only the elderly or those with underlying health problems are at risk of COVID-19.
This myth lulls young people into a false sense of security and they are likely to continue to go out into public and increase the rate of transmission. On March 25th, a sixteen-year-old with ‘just a cough’ died due to COVID-19. On the same day, a 21-year-old with no underlying health issues died after contracting COVID-19. Then a 12 year old in Belgium, the youngest in Europe died after contracting COVID-19. This shows that the virus can affect young people. COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus with no vaccine so no one has immunity. Everyone is at risk of suffering serious illness from it.
2. COVID-19 is just like the flu
Although the Coronavirus has flu-like symptoms, COVID-19 is overall more dangerous than the flu due to its high rate of transmission. The Coronavirus can infect two to three more people while the flu only spreads to one person at a time. This means that containing COVID-19 by practising social distancing is very important.
3. Face masks protect against the Coronavirus
Unless you are using a professional face mask, disposable face masks do not reduce chances of contracting COVID-19. The virus can be spread through droplets meaning it can be caught via the nose, mouth and eyes.
However, if you are ill, it is advised that a face mask is worn to protect others from being infected. Wearing a mask is only effective if it is used and disposed of correctly to prevent the spread. The WHO has recommended that face masks are not worn as there are now limited supplies for health care workers due to the high demand. To protect yourself and others, regularly keeping up with hygiene is advised.
4. Heat kills the virus or drinking lots of water
There is no evidence for heat being a method to stop the spread of Coronavirus. To successfully inactivate a virus, such as SARS, one would need temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius – a temperature much too high and dangerous for the skin. Similarly, drinking lots of water does not kill the virus, however, drinking water and taking the right supplements can aid help to strengthen your immune system.
5. Antibiotics kill COVID-19
This has been an issue even before the pandemic occurred. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, not viral and will be ineffective against COVID-19. There is currently no cure for COVID-19 and therefore, no medication or remedies will help. To keep yourself and others safe, self-isolate when feeling ill and wash hands regularly with soap and water.
These are only a handful of misconceptions that are being circulated out of many. It is vital to check information against scientific evidence before sharing it or taking any sort of advice both to reduce harm to yourself and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
What can we do to solve this?
1. Avoid reading any information from social media platforms such as Instagram or Twitter as this is more likely to lead to misinformation and biases.
2. Check the sources of your information – make sure that any facts claimed are backed up by authorities such as the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
3. Read the whole article critically. Try to ignore previous bias or emotional responses in order to come to a sensible conclusion about whether the information is true or believable.
4. Think before you share. Rather than sharing an article or chain message that may cause more anxiety, consider whether or not it is constructive in helping people understand the situation.
If everyone can be more discerning in the information read and shared, we can reduce the panic and harm caused by misinformation.
Biography: Alyssa Khoo is a 17 year old overseas student from Singapore. Currently, she is studying Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics A Level at St Swithun's School in Winchester, England. She enjoys reading both fiction and non-fiction books and has a love for musicals. In the future, she hopes to study Biomedical Sciences at University.
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