Nothing has caused panic and fear during this Covid-19 pandemic like misinformation. Ignorance, they say, is a holding pattern; the axiomatic calm that acts as a precursor to a storm; a kind of delay that is preserved when the much necessary strategic information is inaccessible.
To whatever extent knowledge enables, ignorance reliably disempowers.
But pernicious as ignorance is, misinformation is a more virulent social disease.
Of all the malevolent toxins to which we are all vulnerable during a crisis of global magnitude, misinformation is the most dangerous.
The world is currently full of misinformation — especially on social media. It fuelled the Arab Spring.and the Brexit
Social media has provided the platform for all shades of opinion, including fake news.
It has not only compromised our mental faculties’ capability to triangulate (or verify information) but also undermined expertise, especially in clinical care, outcomes, and the doctor-patient relationship.
For instance, for years, a large portion of social media users have regarded immunisation not as public health breakthrough, but rather the cause of autism.
This is a misleading theory, which despite being largely demystified, has refused to fade even in the academia.
In 2015, for example, the University of Wollongong awarded a PhD for a thesis, “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy” which sought to inform public health policy in contradiction of WHO vaccination guidelines.
However, in a review, different authors reprimanded it for falsifying facts.
We have seen the rise of extreme protestations against the polio vaccine, for example, by the top echelons of religious leaders and the emergence of highly connected group of “anti-vax” crusaders globally.
The situation was worse at the height of the emergence of the HIV epidemic, which the Internet conspiracy theorists seasonally claimed was started purposefully manufactured in some laboratory.
Regrettably, the underlying effects of all these is that the consumers of such misinformation tend to embrace “alternative” therapies proven not to work.
In the case of Covid-19 pandemic, the greatest source of anxiety has been the convoluted process of watching the news unfold on social media, which has fuelled the fears of not only infected and affected but also those that are yet to get the infection.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described Covid-19 as “a massive ‘infodemic”, referring to the profusion of both accurate and inaccurate information that makes it hard for people to “find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
While severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Ebola and Zika viruses all caused a global scare, they didn’t cause as much fear as that around Covid-19.
The fears around the coronavirus are largely driven by social media, which has allowed disinformation and rumours to engender an environment of heightened uncertainty and anxiety.
At this time, governments need to work closely with the WHO to fight misinformation; the sheer volume of which is likely to breed xenophobia.
Studies have, for example, plausibly concluded that the coronavirus is not a “purposefully manipulated” and that the suspected sources remain pangolin and bats.
We, therefore, run the risk of weakening the resolve of already decrepit public health, if we allow conspiracy theories to add to our current knowledge gaps about the virus.
Onyango is a molecular biologist.