A little learning
Last week, in the journal Nature, Timothy Caulfield wrote about battling dangerous pseudoscience in the time of COVID-19. The “infodemic,” or the wave of misinformation that has arisen with the pandemic, is a public health threat. US President Donald Trump’s ill-advised musings on battling the virus by ingesting or injecting disinfectant thankfully didn’t gain traction here, but cases of Americans ingesting cleaning solutions did occur following his pronouncement. This is just one of many tidbits of misinformation that experts needed to fight on top of actually battling the virus.
This column already wrote about health misinformation in April. Since then, public figures have continued to make pronouncements about health and safety without scientific backing. If the pronouncements were only as benign as “bananas boost immunity,” then consequences wouldn’t be too dire, but as the disinfectant debacle shows, it takes only one poorly thought speech to mislead many.
Misinformation abounds: protesters elsewhere have heard of the relatively low rates of severe illness among infected individuals and have concluded that COVID-19 is just like the common flu, and thus quarantine measures are unnecessary. All over the world, people who have heard of “herd immunity” are calling for lifting of lockdown measures, so that people can develop herd immunity to the virus — never mind that, absent a vaccine, devastating mortalities and overwhelmed health care systems would come before even a semblance of herd immunity is achieved.
Our local equivalent of a little learning being a dangerous thing: One of the presidential advisers, Joey Concepcion, discovered that there are “low” rates of infection among poor communities, and proceeded to muse that the poor must have a “stronger” immunity. It has been hypothesized that early childhood exposure to particular microorganisms may be protective against immune-related illnesses; but such an interpretation is an illogical twisting of this hypothesis. Such a claim also discounts the existence of asymptomatic transmission among untested individuals in those communities, as well as ethical considerations of pronouncing the already marginalized poor as being “more resilient.” On a perhaps less dangerous note, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. posted musings on Twitter similar to Trump’s bleach speech: “Can it be wrong to ingest or inject soap?” To his credit he promptly deleted the tweet after it was criticized, before it could spread further. A physician has also made statements on how swallowing semen can be protective against the virus.
Statements like these, though they aren’t made maliciously or with an intent to mislead, come at a time when the public is hungry for information, and not everyone has the capacity to fact-check. This is also not the best time for sarcasm or satire, considering how quickly a post can spread and be misinterpreted. The American show “Saturday Night Live,” famous for its irreverent humor, aired a sketch where actor Brad Pitt played Dr. Anthony Fauci, the public face of the fight against coronavirus in the United States. The sketch could have used satire in ways that might cause further confusion; instead, it pointed out misleading misinformation with clarity and humor. It’s a lesson to those with platforms and followings that this is a time for greater sensitivity.
It becomes the job of the scientific community to clearly debunk health myths by drowning them out with legitimate information. This poses a challenge, as many of those with both expertise and access to data are also working on the frontlines; by the time they’re able to refute fake news, the information has already spread. Still, many experts take pains to explain to laypersons and create infographics, public health heroes in their own right.
We must call on those with power or public platforms and sizeable online followings to exercise caution in their speech. Care should be taken not to make statements with implications on public health and safety, or which can drown out sound data and more robust recommendations.
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