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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Infodemic

"It’s an excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult."

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It was World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who first used the term “infodemic” while speaking before security and foreign policy experts in a hastily convened conference to discuss the international community’s coordinated response to combat the wildly spreading COVID-19 outbreak in Munich last month.

At that time, the disease had spread across major continents with the exception of South America and Africa and threatening to morph into a real pandemic. The WHO chief cautioned against the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories specially in social media—an infodemic as he termed it —saying it was “equally dangerous as COVID-19” as it only causes panic among the general public

The good doctor proceeded to say that given the present situation there is need to provide facts not instigate fear, to inject rationality not rumors and ensure solidarity, not promote stigma. We have a choice, said Ghebreyesus. “Can we come together to face a common and dangerous enemy? Or will we allow fear, suspicion and irrationality to distract and divide  us?”

In that regard, the WHO decided to simply refer to the spreading virus, first, as “novel coronavirus” to distinguish it from the other members of the “coronavirus family” and later, simply as COVID-19, and not assign a place, an animal or a certain group of people to the disease.

As Tedros explained: “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing.” This is precisely what has been happening worldwide as fear and xenophobia set in. On a number of occasions, Sinophobia and sentiment against those of Asian origin have emerged.

The WHO even advised people to avoid that other infection: This time it can infect you through your device screen, referring to the proliferation of such mongering on social media.

Indeed, misinformation or outrightly malicious theories lead to a lot of unintended and uncontrollable consequences which makes prompt, proper and accurate responses to the outbreak doubly problematic. It can lead to panic buying with many people hoarding face masks, alcohol, vitamin supplements, virus protection kits online and even napkins.

Reports from the field have also validated the fears of some sectors that misinformation has undermined, if not completely eroded, the public’s willingness to follow legitimate government medical advisories due to fear or misconceptions, to the point of knowingly denying having encountered the symptoms of the Covid-19 virus and thus discard any precautionary measures.

As the WHO noted: “The tide of misinformation is undermining trust in governments, global health organization, nonprofits and scientists—the very institutions which are needed to organize a global response to what maybe turning into a pandemic.” Thus, the continuing calls for accurate messaging about the provenance and spread of the disease and ways to protect and respond to it at all levels.

Which brings us to another point. The surge in fake news, conspiracy theories and the like—the kind of infodemic described by the WHO chief—can only be abated if the agency and its partners in government, business and scientific organizations can come around to bombard both the traditional and social media with the needed information about this disease in as simple, easily comprehensible and transparent a manner as possible. Now that the WHO and its partners, specially in the scientific and medical communities, have come forward with their own sites in social media and have been more pro-active in engaging the general public with quick and understandable responses to the many questions bugging people worldwide, it is easier to get people to regain trust in the public institutions committed to combating the disease to the very end.

Until such time, we should all be patient in actively promoting and sharing the correct messages and responses to as many people as we can. This is the time for a coordinated, mass-based campaign to expunge the curse of infodemic in the public domain. That will go a long way in ensuring a faster, proper and longer term scientific and medically potent response to COVID-19. The earlier, the better.   

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