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Information heroes

Science is only as good as the information it generates, and how it gets disseminated and used.

We’re seeing this with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the disease is so new, so much mystery remains around the virus and how it spreads, confusing health professionals, governments, and the public at large.

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The situation is worsened with the infodemic, the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. This infodemic is almost always driven by politics, with people, including leaders, wanting to believe only what suits their own ideologies and interests. We’re seeing this in the United States in the rush to reopen some states that claimed that “liberals” and “leftists” were exaggerating the dangers of COVID-19.

Sadly, these states that rushed into reopening (OJO!) with the result that 14 states now, plus Puerto Rico, are seeing worrying spikes in infections and deaths.

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Reporters Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization monitoring press freedom in the world, just released a list of “COVID-19 information heroes” — “30 journalists, whistleblowers and media outlets whose courage, perseverance or capacity to innovate has helped to circulate reliable and vital information during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Journalist Maria Ressa was not among the 30 information heroes, but her and Reynaldo Santos Jr.’s conviction, together with other developments during this lockdown, from the arrest of Cebuana artist Maria Victoria Beltran for her satirical post about a lockdown in Cebu City to the new anti-terrorism bill, sends strong signals to the public to keep silent.

At the risk of consuelo de bobo (fools consoling fools), I need to mention two recent cases of censorship, one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom, that tell us how the world is endangered by the leaders of countries we thought were models of democracies.

As part of the reopening efforts in the US, the White House had to approve safety guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The guidelines apparently went under scrutiny for political correctness, as defined by President Donald Trump and company. A first CDC advisory was approved, but without the section on religious activities. After a delay, it was finally released, minus a warning about choirs and singing.

The CDC had concerns because of a “superspreader event” involving choir practice in the US, where 53 of the 61 practicing choir members were infected, with two deaths.

Trump was reluctant to alienate the more conservative religious, who have supported his presidency and who oppose “big government” intervening in private sector affairs. Also taken out of the CDC recommendations was a warning about “sharing cups.” I hope our local religious, who are also pushing hard for reopening churches with few or no restrictions, will not take after their American counter-

parts. Our religious leaders must ask themselves if they are willing to answer for superspreader infection clusters inside their churches.

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To move to the other side of the Atlantic, the British opposition Labor Party has accused their government of censoring a report on the vulnerability of BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnicity) communities during COVID-19. The report was supposed to look at vulnerabilities shaped by ethnicity, obesity, and gender.

The report was supposed to have been published at the end of May but has been delayed; not only that, copies circulated are said to have taken out 69 pages of the report, which had recommendations for action.

It turns out the report looks as well into the high COVID-19 infection and death rates of minority groups, including Filipinos. A recent British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) report last April 28 featured 100 frontliners in their National Health Service who had died; 18 were Filipinos.

More than frontliners though, Zubaida Haque of the Runnymede Trust, a think tank covering racial inequality, told The Guardian, a British newspaper, that vulnerabilities were shaped as well by the “disproportionate use of force against black people during the lockdown.” (We could easily use that same observation for our poorer barangays.)

A continuing delay in the report on the BAME will affect the trajectory of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom, as people continue to fail to see how racism is at the heart of many of the vulnerabilities.

Mass media and citizens need to be free to keep reporting on the realities of life under lockdown, while scientists, especially epidemiologists, need to be more aware of the lives behind their numbers of infections and deaths. Not everyone needs to be an information hero, but maybe more of us can aspire to be information defenders.

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For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
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TAGS: Coronavirus Pandemic, COVID-19 reporting, information heroes, journalists, Michael l. tan, Pinoy Kasi, Reporters Without Borders
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