Fighting a pandemic... & fake news

Topics Coronavirus | Fake news | Lockdown

Since mid-February, the World Health Organization has been warning against an “infodemic” centred on the coronavirus. An infodemic is a situation where there’s an excess of not necessarily correct information. The bombardment of a mix of facts, fake news and wild speculation makes life harder for citizens and policymakers.

There have been wild conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus and even wilder theories about why it was created even though there’s strong scientific consensus that it was not created at all. We have also had a buffet of crazy cures placed in the public domain.

Prominent personalities with no medical background have advocated treatments involving homeopathy, drinking or washing in cow urine, the ingestion of bleach, and shining bright lights and ultraviolet into the body. We have seen advocacies of therapies that supposedly change pH levels. Religious leaders have stated that obscure rituals and prayers can offer protection. Official resources have been diverted into researching the dreams of somebody (not a doctor, or bioscientist) who has literally, dreamt of a possible cure.

One must not forget to mention hydroxychloroquine, which was hailed as a potential covid-killer by well-known non-scientists. The drug was subsequently tested in clinical conditions before being discarded as useless against the coronavirus with dangerous side-effects to boot. But there were serious diplomatic rows about supplies of the drug.

Some commentators have also opined that the virus will die in hot conditions, ignoring the fact that it has rampaged through the Middle Eastern and Iranian deserts and thrived in an Australian summer.

We have also seen optimists blithely saying a vaccine will be ready within a few days. There are indeed, over a dozen teams working worldwide on possible vaccines. But the fastest-ever vaccine development in history took something over four years. It will be a genuine miracle if a vaccine arrives in 2020, and it will be a pleasant surprise if it comes in by 2021.

Given that this is the era of social media, all these dead-ends and red herrings have been turned into videos and forwards that have been pushed out to over a billion eyeballs. Much of this is actively dangerous nonsense and a lot of it has emanated from prominent politicians with attendant huge media coverage and massive social media highlights.

How does one stop the spread of health-related misinformation and fake news of this order? The first thing is that the media needs to stop giving prominent coverage to pseudoscience. There should be no question of offering “balanced coverage” when it comes to advocates of bleach therapy and cow urine.

Second, scarce research resources should not be diverted into investigating dream-cures and therapies with no possible scientific basis. Unfor-tunately, entire ministries are devoted to such cures in several different countries, including India. Public funding for things like homeopathy and cow urine therapy has to cease.

Any drug that may or may not work, such as hydroxychloroquine or Re-mdesivir needs to go through a process of experiment and trial, with doctors administering it in clinical, controlled conditions. Unfortunately, in the middle of a pandemic, the gold standard of double-blind research may be impossible. But rigour in such trials must be maintained to the best extent possible. Remdesivir, a potentially effective drug from US pharmaceutical major, Gilead, is going through an accelerated version of this. It’s been tested in labs and it is being trialled on an emergency basis.

Researchers need to get coherent updates out there about drugs and vaccines at various stages of development. Scientists need to be better communicators and the media has to learn how to interact with scientists. This is a two-way process.

Scientists have to learn how to make their subjects accessible to laypersons and they also have to learn how to debunk nonsense in terms understood by laypersons. At the same time, the media has to learn to distinguish between genuine (possibly wrong, but plausible) claims made by genuine scientists, and claims made by charlatans who airily explain some drug works due to quantum physics.  

For example, when a claim is made that a homeopathic treatment works due to quantum physics, scientists must come out and issue clear statements that it doesn’t work. Similarly, when the former host of the Miss Universe show suggests ingesting bleach, or shining bright lights into bodies, can combat coronavirus, you need doctors to stand up and say, “No! Bleach is poison!”.

Governments also have a vital role to play in handling misinformation. Senior bureaucrats and politicians should avoid pseudoscientific statements. Policymakers should avoid devoting resources to pseudoscientific searches for non-existent absurd cures. Officials should also debunk fake news and rumours and ensure the rebuttals are widely disseminated on mainstream media and social media.

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