Scientists call for media sobriety amid Covid-19 fake news ‘infodemic’

Medical staff demonstrating the "elbow shake" in a health and safety workshop in the Timor-Leste capital of Dili. Image: Siarai Martins

By Dr Crispin Maslog in Manila

As fake news on Covid-19 spreads faster than the virus, scientists call for a halt to the “infodemic”.

As China admits that the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is now the worst public health crisis that the country has faced since its founding, a group of scientists has sent out a piercing appeal for sobriety in media coverage of the epidemic.

The scientists in a statement published on February 19 in one of the world’s leading science journals, Lancet, appealed for support for the scientists, public health professionals and medical professionals.

VIEW: The coronavirus world map

“We are public health scientists who have closely followed the emergence of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and are deeply concerned about its impact on global health and wellbeing.

“We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact, and share their results transparently with the global health community.

“This effort has been remarkable,” the scientists said in a formal statement which they asked the public to endorse and sign.

Fighting the ‘infodemic’
This appeal cannot be timelier. It comes at a time when the coronavirus “infodemic” is overshadowing the coronavirus epidemic itself.

I had started to worry when my driver asked me the other day if it is true that China’s government officials are killing people who are sick of the coronavirus there just to get rid of the virus.

I proceeded to interrogate him on where he got the information and scolded him, saying this is fake news. But what really got me worried was when no less than a senator of the Philippines played back in a public hearing in February in the halls of Philippine Congress a conspiracy theory video that claimed the coronavirus to be a form of “bio-warfare” developed by the US against China.

Vicente Sotto, whose claim to fame before he was elected senator was as a broadcast personality, alleged his office had received the video anonymously and found it was “somehow very interesting, if not revealing”. The theory has been debunked by experts.

What happened next was just as interesting. Instead of first asking the opinion of the health experts present, Senator Sotto turned to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin for his comments. Locsin, a veteran journalist and publisher, immediately rejected the theory as the “craziest video”.

But it was also crazy that Senator Sotto did not immediately ask for the opinions of the health officials present at the Senate hearing, particularly Health Secretary Francisco Duque III or WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe. It seems that Senator Sotto was looking for sensational angles rather than scientific opinions and who better to ask than a journalist?

This is a tendency to which most of us in the public are now inclined as we read and talk about the origins, nature and spread of Covid-19.

As of March 10, barely two months after the confirmation of the first case of corona virus (31 December 2019), in Wuhan, China, there were at least 67,773 confirmed cases in the mainland China province of Hubei, bringing the world total to more than 118,745, with the death toll at 4284. Major outbreaks have also developed in Iran, Italy – with a quarantine of its population of more than 60 million – and South Korea with thousands of confirmed cases and multiple deaths.

How to protect yourself against Covid-19. Video: World Health Organisation

Reprise Sars and Merscov

This Covid-19 epidemic that started in China and now threatens to be a worldwide pandemic brings to mind two epidemics in our lifetime — Sars and Merscov.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) was a viral respiratory illness that was recognised as a global threat in March 2003, after first appearing in southern China in November 2002.

It reached Singapore on February 25  and I had personal experience coping with public hysteria for months until the high-quality Singapore medical system and responsible media licked the virus three months later in May.

A total of 238 probable Sars cases were reported in Singapore between March and May 2003, 33 of whom died. The first case was on February 25 while the last case was 5 May 5.

Although away from my family as a visiting professor in Singapore, I overcame my initial jitters and later felt safe enough to go out to the market, take the bus to my office and make occasional forays downtown. It did cramp my social life, however.

The crucial thing to remember is to be informed, collected and aggressive in combating false information.

Pandemic in digital age
What makes Covid-19 different from Sars and Merscov, however, is not only its initial size but the milieu into which it was born. Covid-19 is now at a stage when it is likely going to be declared a pandemic and described with many others — thanks to social media.

When Sars and Merscov were infecting people, the younger generation were only beginning to surf the internet and use the original cell phone. Social media was still an infant.

But now, a WHO official warns that false news was “spreading faster than the virus”. Claims are made that the virus is spread by eating bat soup or could be cured by garlic. A WHO official has met officials of tech companies at Facebook’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, including those from Google, Apple, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and Sales force.

Earlier he held talks with Amazon at the e-commerce giant’s headquarters in Seattle.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus was labelled a public health emergency, books on the disease have popped up on the e-retailer. And when users search for the word coronavirus on Amazon, listings for face masks and vitamin C pop up.

Vitamin C has been listed as one of the fake cures for coronavirus.

In response, Facebook on February 27 announced that it was banning ads that “create a sense of urgency” about Covid-19 or suggest cures or preventive measures” and “will remove posts that contain false information about the virus”.

Most likely unintended, but in the foreseeable future we may have to fight the coronavirus on two fronts — the viral epidemic and the informational epidemic fronts.

Rather than be passive recipients of news, we have to become critical and push back on all information that sounds “crazy” and “conspiratorial”. The educated class should take the lead in doing this.

Schools should be involved and introduce courses on media information literacy, starting with identifying fake news especially in relation to science and health.

This is quite a challenge to both the medical scientists and the communication scientists. May both groups of scientists win.

Dr Crispin C. Maslog, a former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor at Silliman University and the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now chair of the board of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC), Manila. This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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