A call to clear misinformation in the era of COVID-19

By | March 16, 2020

The rumor mill has been churning. Media sources—even reputable ones—are using inflammatory headlines as clickbait, capitalizing on the anxiety of their readerships. Misinformation is being passed along through various channels, not the least of which comes from people in positions of power. The break-room in the hospital is abuzz with worried team-members, news of a new patient in the ED who tested positive, worries of exposure for oneself and loved ones, concerns of staff shortages due to quarantining, fear of running out of proper protective equipment. This is not a drill.

Preventing transmission through the closure of at-risk schools, upholding excellent hygiene, and practicing social distancing measures are all proven methods of slowing the rate of spread and (hopefully) decreasing the total amount of our kind that becomes infected. But it is more than COVID-19 that needs to be contained. While it is true that the gravity of the respiratory syndrome SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19 is undeniable—especially given predictions of its spread to a potential majority of the human population—it is also true that the impact of this virus on the collective human psyche could make this pandemic far more impactful, for many more years, than the virus itself.

It is terrifying to read headlines and receive emails of continued closures, see grocery store aisles cleared out, and watch the continued decline of our economy. And as more people bet on this virus, the recession will only continue to propagate. We know from not-too-long-ago that the psychosocial consequences of an economic recession have the ability to change the health of many, many people worldwide. We may also recall that corticosteroid release (i.e., stress and panic) decreases our immune system’s ability to ward off antigens. These are two of many reasons why we need consistent, rationally-delivered, and fact-checked information disseminated through our social networks and newsfeeds. And if it isn’t always coming from entities in leadership positions, it ought to come from healthcare providers and local stakeholders.

Some specific examples where misinformation can be cleared up:

1. Stock up on food. It is recommended to have food saved in case one is quarantined in order to contain the spread of the virus during the two-week post-exposure quarantine period. Not because the virus is expected to cause a massive food shortage.

2. Work from home. While not possible for many, this is a recommendation in order to prevent the spread of the virus. It is not meant to convey the message that coming to work will lead to infection. At the time being, this is all about risk minimization and flattening the curve, and protecting our most vulnerable community members.

3. This is deadly. Yes—this disease can be lethal, especially in certain populations. For the overwhelming majority of people, it will not be lethal and will instead be mild. While we should be prepared for the worst (i.e., respiratory support, expanding testing, creating space for those hospitalized), we do not need to move about our daily lives “expecting the worst” without reason. As healthcare providers, we should remain up to date on testing services and data as it continues to unfold regarding the actual morbidity and mortality of COVID-19, and provide factual information regarding the actual risk of the disease. Note that these are just a few examples, and I write them with the caveat that this is a rapidly unfolding circumstance, so these statements may not remain true.

Finally, reiterate methods of reducing transmission, but frame them as a means of community stewardship. I would like this to serve as a call to action: take the extra time to tap into your various social networks and clear misinformation. Help assuage anxiety. Explain the reasons for panic-inducing closures and bare shelves at grocery stores. Reaffirm that there is no place for xenophobia in this matter. There is a dearth of consolidated, sound leadership, and certainly a misalignment between public health outlets and media outlets. As the nurse, doctor, medical student, or simply most apprised member of your family or friend group, you will be looked to for honest information.

Our obligation to human health spans beyond the lungs, beyond the replication cycle of a coronavirus, and beyond the walls of the hospital. There is an international toll that undue, rapidly compounding anxiety will take on our collective health. And I don’t just mean acute stress — I mean unemployment and missed paychecks worsening health determinants such as food security, thereby complicating chronic disease management — the gamut. Misinformation and a sense of panic are perhaps even more transmissible than COVID-19, and just like the virus, in need of containment.

Vibhu Krishna is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com