That’s a term coined to refer to the epidemic of misinformation that has erupted in relation to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), with effects that can be worse than the illness. My initial reaction to the word was that it should be “misinfodemic,” because I was thinking of all the misinformation going around. But, thinking harder, it really is an epidemic (or even pandemic, meaning global) of problematic information. There’s misinformation or wrong information, which can be broken down as well into wholesale fake news as well as half-truths, usually rumors and conspiracy theories.
Some of the misinformation come from a misinterpretation of scientific facts, which is inevitable given that this virus is new (novel), still mysterious in many ways and thus sometimes creates disagreements among scientists. Moreover, every press release from medical institutions is liable to “mutate” (just like the virus) and, with the help of social media, the mutated version spreads quickly, going viral.
Just as important, though, is the lack or even total absence of information, the vacuum providing fertile ground for speculation, rumors, urban myths.
Thinking about the Philippines in particular, I have wondered, since the first reports of infections in the country, whether our health authorities have enough information on how COVID-19 is spreading.
Specifically, we are talking about epidemiologists, scientists who track the emergence and spread of diseases. Epidemiologists are numbers people, constantly collecting statistics. They’re sometimes called microbe-hunters because they have to talk with patients to try to track down the movement of the infectious agents. This means contact-tracing, asking patients where they have been, who they have been in contact with and who, among the contacts, might have been the ones who infected them.
This contact-tracing is difficult with COVID-19 for three reasons. First, it travels as air droplets, so it can be anyone who was with you in the train or the plane, in the supermarket, in a rock concert. With modern technology, though, epidemiologists can do wonders. In one report, they were able to identify a “patient zero” in a train, track down other passengers in the same compartment, and establish that 14 of them were infected by patient zero.
But it can get complicated, because the virus can be spread by people who don’t have any symptoms. There’s even evidence now that it can be spread by people who are already recovering.
Finally, there’s the problem of testing. I was surprised that in nearby Malaysia, there are 11 private companies offering COVID-19 tests. In the Philippines, we currently depend only on the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine, which sends samples overseas for testing. Dr. Raul Destura of the UP PGH has developed a local test, but it still has to be approved for wider use.
Because of limited testing, we don’t really know what the situation is like in the Philippines, but I am glad the government is finally waking up to the threat and is not taking any chances. The current precautions being taken come out of a handful of confirmed local transmission cases (meaning people who had not been overseas)—small but enough to cause concern, because once the virus has a foothold in a country, it will spread very quickly, as was seen in China.
The infodemic distorts our perceptions of the problem, and its solutions. For example, I keep hearing stories about people dropping dead in the streets of China, and in large numbers.
Let’s look at the statistics for better perspective. The total number of infections reported globally, as of Tuesday morning when I’m writing this column, is 112,399. There have been 3,987 deaths attributed to the infection, mostly the elderly and people with other health problems such as diabetes and coronary disease. In addition, there are 63,578 who have recovered, the recovery taking as long as three weeks.
The recovery rate is high, at least from what we’ve seen so far. The fears expressed by the World Health Organization is that this might be different in countries with weaker health care systems.
That’s where we need to worry. I doubt if we will be able to implement a lockdown, which demands so much in terms of logistics, plus cooperation from citizens.
What we seem to be moving into is “social distancing,” with suspension of classes, banning large assemblies of people, and reducing the mobility of people. Schools are already looking into using online classes, and some companies are considering work-from-home arrangements.
All this is mitigation to try to slow down the epidemic, even as we counter the infodemic by getting out accurate information on tackling the virus.
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