Misinformation In The COVID-19 Era

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began late last year, various sources have propagated a gamut of false information about the disease. Some of this misinformation has been politically motivated. For example, the initial Chinese response of downplaying COVID-19’s mortality rate, or supporters of President Trump presenting the virus as a political conspiracy. Some misinformation has been racist; for instance, the idea that people of Asian descent are carriers of the virus, (regardless of whether or not they had been in contact with it). Some has been hilarious: a number of Americans apparently believed an article by the Australian satirical newspaper, the Betoota Advocate, which reported that Tom Hanks was being kept company in quarantine by a Wilson volleyball. Still others have just been plain weird: why did people feel the need to stock up on toilet paper? All of this information has contributed to a global environment that is seemingly polarized, with complacency at one end and panic at the other. This creates greater danger, not only in terms of infection, but also discrimination and violence.

COVID-19 (a novel strand of coronavirus) first appeared in humans in December 2019. Since then, according to an Australian government health alert from 13 March, globally “there have been more than 130,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) and more than 4,800 reported deaths.” This number is likely to have already increased and does not take into account any unreported cases. According to a Medium article, the number of unreported cases of COVID-19 is “in the thousands, maybe more”. Yet, despite this clear level of infectiousness, there have been multiple instances of governments downplaying both the contagious nature and the seriousness of the disease. The initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, was met with inaction. According to the Human Rights Watch, Chinese authorities withheld “information from the public” and dismissed “the likelihood of transmission between humans”. Al Jazeera also reported, “the detention of a doctor who had warned colleagues that the new virus was similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)”. That doctor has since died. There is much to be lauded about the more recent Chinese response to COVID-19. However, the deliberate withholding of information about the virus and the proliferation of misinformation in the case of human to human transmission, enabled the disease to spread throughout mainland China, and ultimately the rest of the world.

Another example of a government (and its media allies) promoting misinformation about COVID-19 is the U.S. government. President Trump has repeatedly stated and tweeted falsehoods or unverified statements about the virus, one of which was that the number of Americans with COVID-19 is “going very substantially down, not up.”Trump also stated that “Anybody that needs a test gets a test,” when in fact the CDC is having supply issues, and in addition to this, he advised that a vaccine would be made “very soon,” (even though experts have said a vaccine will only be available in a year, at the very soonest).

President Trump and his Vice-President Mike Pence are also not being tested for COVID-19, despite having come into contact with a carrier of the virus, with Trump stating that he is “not concerned” about getting the virus. The misinformation publicized by the president has been complimented by media outlets such as Fox News, which have argued that COVID-19 is not dangerous and is actually a conspiracy to destabilize the president and introduce new impeachment proceedings. This deliberate dissemination of inaccurate information is designed to maintain Trump’s political power and also minimize the potential of a stock market crash. This latter objective has failed. The lack of accurate information from President Trump and his government has contributed to confusion and a likelihood that many more people will become infected. Although the President has recently announced a State of Emergency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, it is too little too late. This dangerous negligence will result in more deaths on American soil.

Various health myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 are also being passed around, particularly on the internet. Some, such as a list which is purportedly from Stanford (Stanford has denied the connection) gives false preventative measures and tests for the virus. This gives people a false sense of security and means they are less likely to be tested- even if they present with symptoms consistent with the virus and could therefore transmit it to other people. There is also a common misconception that we shouldn’t be worried about the virus as it is similar to the flu and has a fairly low mortality rate. It is true that the mortality rate is lower than previous coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS or MERS. However the contagious nature of the virus means that more people have died from COVID-19 than SARS and MERS combined, according to an article in the British Medical Journal. Furthermore, headlines that discuss how it will only kill sick and elderly people contribute to ageism and discrimination against those with compromised immune systems. Even if you personally are unlikely to die from COVID-19, this does not justify putting yourself and others at risk.

Moreover, the issues associated with COVID-19 are not exclusively based upon its mortality rate. The large number of people who currently have COVID-19, or will have it in the future, has the potential to create high demand on hospital systems that are already unable to cope with the pandemic. According to Al Jazeera, this already occurred in China, and in Italy extreme measures are being considered to address the overcrowding of hospitals. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Italian hospitals are considering implementing an age limit upon patients as “resources may have to be used first for those with a higher probability of survival and, secondly, who has the most years of life left, and offer the maximum number of benefits to the majority of people.” This utilitarian approach is reminiscent of wartime priorities, highlighting the massive strain of COVID-19 upon the hospital system and society more generally.

It is not only ageist stereotypes being perpetuated by COVID-19 misinformation, but also racist perceptions. According to ABC News, in Australia’s Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, a family refused to let a staff member of Asian descent treat their child due to fears that “she was a risk of spreading coronavirus to them and their child.” The same article details that there was an 80% drop in business to Sydney’s Chinatown in the weeks following the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles’ Chinatown has also seen a marked decrease in business “with customers disappearing.”

In France, the French-Asian community has been using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (#IAmNotAVirus) in order to combat “coronaracism.” These racist misconceptions have negative impacts upon both the mental health of those who are targeted, and the general economy.  In various other countries, there have been rumors that people of specific racial backgrounds are less susceptible to COVID-19.

According to a Poynter article, “In Nigeria, Twitter was filled with the “information” that subsaharianos (those living in the areas of Africa below the Sahara Desert) had been blessed and that they would be strong enough to face the new disease.”

In India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, there were multiple online sources which argued that Muslims did not get COVID-19. These claims are obviously misleading, and have the potential create complacency within those of these racial and religious groups (i.e. subsaharianos and Muslims) and also to spur discrimination against those who do not fit into these racial and religious categories. Everyone is susceptible to COVID-19 and this kind of misinformation will only disconnect the world at a time when it is vital we all band together to minimize the further spread of this virus.

These various forms of misinformation have all incited violence (whether physical or mental) and panic. The COVID-19 pandemic is scary enough without misinformation adding to the fear and uncertainty around the world. We must all prevent the spread of misinformation by accessing COVID-19 updates from reliable sources and following instructions pertaining to quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing. Most importantly we must not allow this misinformation to spark fear and discrimination, but rather face the outbreak with tolerance and kindness to our fellow humans.


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