COVID-19, misinformation epidemic and pandemic of fear

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COVID-19, misinformation epidemic and pandemic of fear

 Philly Bongoley Lutaaya has been on my mind lately. Lutaaya, an outstanding and popular Ugandan pop-musician in the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the first prominent people to reveal that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Lutaaya’s revelation in 1989 was greeted with skepticism, derision, some booing and public claims that he had done it to boost the sales of his records. Before that year was out, Lutaaya was dead as a result of complications of AIDS. 


Humanity is like that. Denial of danger provides psychological comfort. With the new coronavirus pandemic breathing down our necks, I am reading comments by many Ugandans on social media that suggest psychological denial of this sudden onslaught by an invisible enemy. Some are upset by the fear-inducing reports about the pandemic’s progress and the escalating death toll around the world. They would rather hear  the good news about the high recovery rate from the disease and the low numbers of identified cases in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which is true. 


Now, it is also true that there is an overload of COVID-19 information, misinformation and disinformation. As a result, some people, mostly non-healthcare professionals, have said that they don’t want to know the grim facts about the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought upon some countries. I fully understand where they are coming from. They are frightened and, perhaps, feel helpless. And poorly managed fear is a dangerous emotion. For example, reports of suicides by infected people in India suggests this to be a contributing factor. 


However, to withhold full information about the nature, risk and threat posed by this new coronavirus would be highly unethical, morally wrong and the perfect fuel for the pandemic’s devastation. The fact is that COVID-19 is a disease with a potentially serious impact on people, including death, especially those in identified high-risk categories. This may not be readily evident to those in countries where few people with it have been identified. Citizens of such countries may even question the necessity for prevention and containment measures imposed by their governments.


In fact, all the adults among the 7.8 billion of us who live on Earth today must not let down our guard. If it takes moderate fear to save ourselves, let’s be afraid of this invisible enemy without becoming dysfunctional and paralyzed. Instead of preferring minimal information, we should insist on full, factual information about this pandemic and use informed fear to fight back. 


Suppressing fear in the face of fire can lead to fatal consequences. One needs to strike a balance. This is what enables doctors, for example, to deal with diseases that they know can kill them if they don’t take great precautions to ensure self-preservation.  It is the essence of good medical practice. Nobody is more afraid of disease (not just COVID-19), than medical doctors. It is that fear that powers the best medical centres and teaching institutions to seek solutions to many killer or disabling conditions. It is that fear that makes doctors seek the latest knowledge in order to arm themselves with potent weapons to fight back on behalf of their patients. 


Now, where does one go to get reliable information about this or any other disease? The quickest place for most non-professional healthcare people is a search engine like Google. This will reward you with all manner of leads. A search for COVID-19 in Google brought up nearly 11 billion results! However, one negative aspect of the Internet and social media is the freedom for anyone with an electronic device to publish whatever they wish, without prior review by experts in the field. Falsehoods populate the digital world making it almost impossible for those who depend on Google as their guide, to safely navigate the treacherous dump of the useful and useless that claim people’s attention and time. This is the major contributor to the pandemic of misinformation that is moving faster than the novel coronavirus. 


Unproven claims, complete fabrications,  misinterpretation of complex science, distortion of prevention recommendations and the ever-so-popular conspiracy theories arrive in electronic inboxes within seconds of being created or forwarded from across the ocean.  A clever wordsmith has named it a misinfodemic. 


This misinfodemic has triggered an epidemic of fear, that afflicts more people than the new coronavirus will. This irrational fear is dangerously counterproductive and can be paralyzing. It can trigger social discord and worse, such as recent  instances of discrimination against Chinese people and of beating and even killing people suspected to be infected with the coronavirus. It can discourage people from reading evidence-based bulletins, updates and recommendations from credible public health agencies and other experts.  


Informed fear is empowering. Uninformed or misinformed fear is incapacitating. Those whose source of information is the unfiltered rumour mill of the social media and speculative television programs have themselves to blame. Remember we live in a world where everyone, including my auto mechanic, is an expert in medicine.  


With an invisible disease agent on the loose, one can easily feel extremely vulnerable yet without control over the enemy. The truth is that we have way more control over this virus than we probably realise. Acknowledging the danger is the first step of reclaiming control. Strict adherence to professional recommendations for frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water, social distancing of two metres between people, staying at home,  self-isolation and quarantining if indicated, remaining calm in what appears to be a silent and invisible storm – these are some of the weapons that we know will help us subdue this pandemic.  


The most important weapon is solid evidence-based information. It is the best vaccine that we have against this virus at the moment.  It is the best antidote against fear, panic, mass hysteria, stigmatization, dysfunction and paralysis. And the good news is that that information is freely available and easily understandable by the non-health professional. I strongly recommend a daily visit to the official websites of some or all of the following organizations: the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health Uganda, the Ministry of Health Kenya, Health Canada, America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Singapore Ministry of Health. It is time very well spent. Certainly better than reading all that junk that is forwarded to us.



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