By RONALD MUNATSI
Information overload and widespread misinformation regarding COVID-19 is increasingly becoming a big concern not only for the general public but for researchers, policy makers and practitioners across the globe. This is resulting a lot of doubt and controversy around the pandemic. Authorities are now faced with fighting not only the pandemic but mischievous elements and ‘science quacks’ bent on bringing chaos through unsubstantiated assertions and conspiracy theories. As highlighted by the World Health Organisation Director General, “We are not just fighting an epidemic. We are also fighting an infodemic.” More disheartening is that even some high level opinion leaders, heads of states included generally believed to have greater discernment when it comes to unfounded rumours have been observed to spread inaccurate information about the risk of the pandemic including unsubstantiated remedies that could be more harmful.
What these purveyors of fake news and misinformation fail to realise is the extent to which disease epidemics are shaped by distinctive interactions between biological and social factors. Social communication and conducts during an outbreak like this are just as important to public health as tests and diagnoses. Social media and other media outlets and technologies shape, mediate, and reflect the global challenges of misinformation. The advent of HIV/AIDS witnessed similar misinformation, for example conspiracy theories of the virus having been created in a government laboratory, that the HIV Tests were unreliable and even weird beliefs that it could be cured by having sex with a virgin or an albino. Exactly the same is happening with the Corona virus and what is worrying is that most of these ideas are very dangerous and harmful. For instance, some people from Iran died after they had consumed industrial grade alcohol after they had been made to believe that it could protect them from the Corona Virus. Such misinformation is so bad that it can entice gullible individuals into a false sense of security and often prevents people from following authentic government guidelines.
Appropriate and effective response to COVID-19 requires everyone pulling together to end the pandemic. We all need to work together to understanding the virus, how it works and the disease it causes including how to care for those who would have been infected by the virus. Others should take on health systems questions, try to re-organize services in the face of the pandemic, such as moving consultations online and over the phone or ensuring community care for people living with long-term chronic conditions. There should also be others to look into the social, political and economic responses to the pandemic. In doing all this it is vital that these responses are informed by the best available research evidence. A great way to generate research evidence to inform responses to COVID-19 is through rapid reviews of evidence about what works and when and how.
Given this background, it is important that the different groups of people involved in the fight against COVID-19 be wary of the information they access particularly through social media and have the skills to discern authentic information from fake. This is particularly important for journalists who have the obligation to ensure that the public receives accurate information concerning their welfare and wellbeing. As much as sensationalisation is one of the ways in which newspapers make money, in times like these it can be harmful and journalists are encouraged to report objectively with substantiated facts about the pandemic. Researchers and research intermediaries like librarians must be utilised to ensure that policymakers and health practitioners have access to robust synthesised research evidence for them to make informed decisions in response to the pandemic.
RONALD MUNATSI is the Director of the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNET) and writes in his individual capacity. ZeipNET coordinates and strengthens overarching national processes that support the use of research evidence in policy and practice. Currently ZeipNET is working with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to establish a rapid evidence synthesis platform to inform health policy and health systems decision making in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.