ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

COVID-19 and Infectious Misinformation

Aniket Sule (anikets@hbcse.tifr.res.in) is with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (HBCSE–TIFR).

In these times of pandemic, we are witnessing the continued dissemination of pseudoscientifi c misinformation about the disease as well as dubious claims of alternative cure. In some instances, such claims appear to be getting offi cial endorsements. Enabling people to identify unscientifi c claims and hoaxes, is the way forward to build rational immunity to halt the infectious spread of misinformation.

We are living in an unusual ­period. When was the last time that a disease infected millions of people in under six months and penetrated every county? When was the last time that the scientific community as well as governments appeared totally helpless? When was the last time that the majority of the world population was forced to stay indoors for days and weeks? Every one of these situations has a potential for a paradigm shift, shaking people’s faith in governments, science, economy, world order, etc. In such moments of ­crisis of faith, the void created by the diminishing confidence in these systems is filled by other things like misinformation.

When COVID-19 started spreading around the world, it did not take much time for many to realise that this disease is unlike others. Swine flu, bird flu, and mad cow disease were thought to be deadly, but their spread remained limited. Thus, humanity had enough time on its hand to develop their treatment. But, this one spread like wild fire and exposed the deficiencies of medical services and governments the world over. Naturally, the blame game began.

Misinformation Factory

First set of whisper campaigns, that is, anonymous WhatsApp forwards, tried to convince people that this virus was purposely released by China, where the first infections appeared. Some initial messages tried arguing that this is a lab-made virus. But after the release of scientific evidence conclusively showing that the virus was a natural mutation, these messages changed their tone to say that China allowed to spread it globally on purpose or due to negligence or due to its obsession with secrecy. Then, there were accompanying forwards trying to expose how China is planning to take over the world economy using this virus as a weapon and the usual “ban Chinese products” rhetoric. These were trying to paint a picture that other governments cannot be held responsible for stumbling in front of this disease because it is a planned conspiracy. But now, months have passed and the governments cannot escape the blame for failure of their medical systems and their strategies. Thus, these kind of WhatsApp forwards have now lost their currency.

Around the same time, the second set of misinformation messages started talking about occult methods. Astrologers and numerologists came forward to claim that they had predicted this pandemic before it started. Some of them had also predicted when the waning phase of COVID-19 will start. As expected, those dates have come and gone.

Then, some people spoke about chants and positive energies. People did not even spare symbolic gestures proposed by the Prime Minister. For each of those gestures, at least five different explanations were doing the rounds to articulate the so-called scientific rationale behind the proposed actions. All of these claimed that if these symbolic tasks were carried through, the virus will disappear then and there. Naturally, there were processions and public events of celebration after each of those tasks. As it happens with every new disease, some cow ­enthusiasts dec­lared that COVID-19 can be either treated or prevented by cow urine, cow dung, or panchagavya. This fell out of favour by late March, when they realised that their unusual choice of drink is not helping and, in fact, was making some people sick. But, this hoax is now again gathering steam with the Gujarat government starting human trials of panchagavya on COVID-19 patients (Sanghavi 2020).

As there was no ready medicine or vaccine available, people turned towards home remedies. The next wave of misinformation started advocating using everything from tea, ginger, garlic, lemon to baking soda and nasal rinses using mustard oil. Many of these substances are used to provide relief from symptoms in the case of the common cold and cough, and hence, it is understandable that many people thought that these may also work in the case of COVID-19. But, what they fail to realise is the fact that, even in the case of common cold, the relief provided by these substances is temporary and just a relief from external symptoms. Since the cold is not really cured by these, the claim was flawed to begin with. As we have seen in the extreme example of the suggestion by the United States (US) President about injec­ting disinfectant inside people, even for a most outlandish suggestion such as this, there are some people who will mindlessly follow it through. Thus, our social influencers advocating some of these home remedies made matters worse.

Here, one must acknowledge a genuine confusion in the public understanding of the term “immunity.” In scientific terms, immunity is always against a specific disease, and the only way to acquire such ­immunity is either through vaccination or if one gets cured after getting infected. By either way, the body develops antibodies to prevent future infection. However, in common parlance, anything which contributes to better health is mistaken as “improving/boosting immunity.” As a result, many products, from herbal concoctions to sanitisers and handwashes and masks, claim imm­unity-boosting properties in their marketing campaigns.

Various autho­rities from company owners to local corporators and office-bearers of residents’ associations then fall prey to this false marketing and start distribution of these products to all, in the name of public service. We even heard the Prime Minister talking about “traditional immunity boosters” in one of his national addresses (India Today 2020). This may simply seem like an issue of linguistic nuance, but can lead to very serious consequences. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people take such “immunity-boosting substances” and then become overconfident that they are immune to the novel coronavirus. This mistaken belief leads to one lowering one’s guard and gives an opening for the virus to strike.

Another set of hoaxes created all sort of confusion about the nature of this virus and its spread. There were claims that the virus is spreading through meat and Chinese food. In the initial weeks, many were confident that the virus will not be able to spread in India due to heat and humidity. In the early part of May, some newspapers carried stories that bats are spreading this virus and many hyperactive local bodies started pruning trees, which housed colonies of bats.

Unscientific Prescriptions

In the game of Chinese whispers, we start with a meaningful message, but just after a few retellings, it gets all garbled up. Similar is the case with COVID-19-related messaging. You start with something as simple as, “Concentrated ble­ach can be used to disinfect various common surfaces” and before you know it, somewhere in the country bleach solution is sprayed on hapless migrants. Nowadays, many cities and localities have started spraying disinfectant on the streets once every few days. Many housing societies and offices are following their example blindly and the equipment manufacturers are making a nice profit. However, no one stops to think what is the probability of someone touching the road surface and then immediately touching their nose or mouth or if most of the viral molecules on these surfaces are anyway deactivated within a few hours, what additional protection is ­being offered by spraying the streets once in a week?

If you look at the medicines and treatments being used around the world, again, there is significant confusion leading to misinformation. In March and April, authorities in the US made some positive noises regarding hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). After that, many countries and agencies started using HCQ on many patients without proper scientific validation. Some companies distributed HCQ tablets to medical workers with a lot of fanfare and publicity. But now, research suggests that there is no evidence of HCQ helping in COVID-19 treatment and, on the other hand, there are significant and potentially fatal side effects (Bosely 2020).

Lastly, there is the elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged. Most of these misleading messages are being sent by anonymous persons. But the Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) ministry of the Government of India is consistently sending out claims about medicines without any scientific evidence. It has been obsessed with the homoeopathic substance known as arsenicum album D30 (AA30). The ministry first issued a circular in early February that AA30 can cure the novel corona­virus; this was met with swift condemnation from the scientific community (Bhasin 2020). But after a few weeks’ silence, the AYUSH ministry again started putting out infographics claiming that AA30 can prevent COVID-19 by boosting immunity. As a result, now many local politicians are going door to door distributing packets of AA30. It is well-established in multiple studies that homoeopathic substances have success rates only as good as placebos and, hence, its status as medicine is disputed. Yet, the AYUSH ministry is steadfastly ignoring it and promoting these substances.1 Various state governments have since followed AYUSH advisories without any application of mind and wasted time and effort in the distribution of substances with questionable medical value (Barnagarwala 2020; Hindu 2020; Rout 2020).

Task of Dispelling Myths

Several groups are fighting valiantly against this horde of misinformation. An initiative called Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC), has created a number of infographics on hoaxes, which were backed by more detailed analysis.2 We, at ISRC, are collaborating with media houses to create videos on this topic. We are doing call-in sessions in Indian languages to answer questions from people regarding COVID-19. We also issued a strong public statement against claims regarding alter­native medicines and COVID-19. There are several other groups and institutes that are doing similar work. But, the flood of misinformation is relentless. When we get a random forward, we carefully check all research to date to verify each and every claim from that forward; then we craft a response that accurately reflects the evidence seen in the research, and also translate this response to multiple languages to reach a large audience. This process takes anywhere between a week to 10 days. By the time we are ready with our output, that hoax would already be out of the market and five new hoaxes would have taken its pace.

Is it then worth fighting such rampant spread of misinformation? Many of my colleagues feel that few of us who keep talking about scientific temper are just going out of our way to sniff out such outrageous things. They feel things are not as bad as we portray. Are not most people smart enough to separate chalk from cheese? Unfortunately, the answer is not very encouraging. There is obviously one section in our society that has associated many of these hoaxes with ethnic pride and considers any attempt to correct misinformation as some Western conspiracy. These people are not going to change their views irrespective of the evidence presented to them. But, there is a larger second layer of society enveloping this first group that should be our ­focus. This group includes those people who will not create such misinformation, but they may believe it without questioning. They may not like to openly ­admit that they believe in any of the questionable advice they get through these messages, but their standard res­ponse of “What’s the harm?” betrays their thinking. This group is largely invisible and hence under­estimated, but that is the herd which emboldens the first group.

Misinformation spreads like an infection. It needs the community to jump from one host to another, and it does not reach pandemic proportions unless a cri­tical mass is susceptible to it. There is no medicine to cure those who are severely infected by the misinformation bug. The only way to save society will be to build “herd immunity.” Exactly like the viral infection, if a large section of society becomes immune to misinformation, most of it will die out without reaching you. What do we mean by “immune to misinformation”? If most people simply delete the questionable forwards they get, instead of forwarding them, that level of immunity will be enough to stop the spread. It still remains a task for science communicators to teach the masses how to spot questionable messages. And, that is where our focus should lie.

Our traditional strategy in science communication has been to tell people about the right kind of science, awe them with our fountain of information, and make them believe us by touting our ­expertise. But, that strategy does not work anymore. People get any factoids they want with one Google search. The animations and videos you can show them are also available online. They no longer need experts for gathering information. We must realise this and stop talking about the same old scientific facts. Instead, we should communicate to them how the process of science works and what analysis is performed to arrive at that the judgment, whereby one result is labelled as scientific and another claim is unscientific. We should impart the skill of scientific thinking instead of just passing on scientific facts. As the Biblical saying goes, “if you give a man a fish, he will eat today, but teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” If you can teach a large number of people to fish, hopefully you will not have to fight misinformation the next time.

Notes

1 Ministry of AYUSH circular is accessible here, https://www.ayush.gov.in/docs/125.pdf.

2 More information about ISRC can be found here, http://indscicov.in/for-public/busting-hoaxes/.

References

Barnagarwala, Tabassum (2020): “Explained: The Debate Over Homoeopathic Drug Arsenicum Album 30,” Indian Express, 5 June, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/debate-over-a-homoeo-drug-ar....

Bhasin, Swati (2020): “Government’s Homeopathy Prescription for Coronavirus Triggers Criticism,” NDTV, 30 January, https://www.ndtv. com/india-news/coronavirus-outbreak-criticism-as-ayush-ministry-recommends-homeopathy-for-coronavirus-2171756.

Boseley, Sarah (2020): “Hydroxychloroquine Does Not Cure Covid-19, Say Drug Trial Chiefs,” Guardian, 5 June, https://www.theguardian. com/world/2020/jun/05/hydroxychloroquine -does-not-cure-covid-19-say-drug-trial-chiefs.

Hindu (2020): “Coronavirus: Distribution of Kabasura Kudineer Commences at Ambur,” 18 May, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/coronavirus-distributi....

India Today (2020): “Coronavirus Immunity Building Tips from Prime Minister Modi’s Speech: Drink Hot Water, Kadha,” 14 April, https://www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/health/story/coronavirus-immunity-bu....

Rout, Hemant Kumar (2020): “COVID-19: As Lockdowns Go, Why Ayurveda as Preventive Makes Sense for States,” New Indian Express, 31 May, https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bhubaneswar/2020/ may/31/covid-19-as-lockdowns-go-why-ayurveda-as-preventive-makes-sense-for-states-2150271.html.

Sanghavi, Nishchal (2020): “Gujarat Plans to Give World a Wonder Drug to Battle Corona,” Ahmedabad Mirror, 27 May, https:// ahmedabadmirror.indiatimes.com/ahmedabad/cover-story/gujarat-plans-to-give-world-a-wonder-drug-to-battle-corona/articleshow/76017951.cms.

 

Updated On : 18th Jun, 2020

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top