Infodemic Poses Serious Risk to COVID-19 Response, Warn Experts At A United Nations General Assembly Event
Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, speaks at UNGA Infodemics webinar

The ‘infodemic’ is one of the “most concerning” governance challenges of our time, undermining trust in science in the midst of the pandemic, and threatening people’s physical and mental health, warned United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Administrator Achim Steimer. 

While the overabundance of misinformation – or ‘infodemic – is not new, it has blown out of proportion since the coronavirus erupted, especially through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, added misinformation expert Claire Wardle, at a side-event of this week’s 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

In recent months, Facebook and Twitter have fueled misinformation, rumours, and conspiracy theories that have undermined COVID-19 responses at the local, national, and global level, said panelists at the event. As a result, many citizens have failed to comply with national coronavirus policies like mask wearing, physical distancing and regular hand hygiene. 

Some have even begun self-medicating themselves with unproven treatments for COVID-19, like the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. Meanwhile, others have injected themselves with the detergent “Lysol” after US President Donald Trump recommended it for COVID-19 in April.  

And more recently, unfounded claims that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol can neutralize the coronavirus are directly responsible for 800 people’s deaths, almost 6,000 hospitalizations, and 60 cases of blindness, according to a recent study. Most of these were reported in Turkey, Qatar, Iran, India, and the US, among other countries.

“Just as COVID-19 has spread around the world, so too have rumors and truths and disinformation, and they can be just as dangerous,” said World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Too many people have done themselves harm based on falsehoods, self-medicating with toxic chemicals or dangerous medications. Others have not taken the precautions they should have.” 

The distribution of rumor, stigma, and conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 globally

Misinformation can also erode trust in health institutions and lead to social and political polarization, as well as hate speech and discrimination, warned panelists. For example, as a result of widespread politicization of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” discrimination against Asian communities skyrocketed during the first several months of the pandemic.

Fighting The Infodemic 

Health professionals must learn to communicate the science in a way that is understandable by communities, and empower them to implement their own solutions to the infodemic, suggested Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

 “The community is the single most important pillar for fighting epidemics,” said Ryan. “They are owed by us our best service and the highest quality of information.” 

Ryan had suggested at previous briefings that health promotion messages should be written at the 8th grade comprehension level and translated into multiple local languages, to make them as accessible as possible.

Communication in an era of a networked internet audience also requires new strategies to hold dialogues with the public and to convey scientific information. Storytelling, for instance, can be used to rebuild trust in science and public health, and help communities make sense of the world, added Wardle. 

States, media platforms and other stakeholders should develop and implement action plans to turn the tide on the infodemic, said UN organizations, as well as IFRC and ITU, in a joint statement

Citizens around the world must have access to accurate information, particularly as mistrust of big pharma and regulatory agencies grows, they said. The stakes are even higher in the midst of accelerated development for a COVID-19 vaccine. The politicization of the vaccine development timeline in the United States, with president Donald Trump quoting a much faster timeline than regulatory agencies or the vaccine companies themselves, has begun to erode public trust in a potential vaccine before it can even be approved.

Svet Lustig Vijay contributed to this story.

Image Credits: WHO, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

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