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Wading through an ‘infodemic’ amidst the pandemic

Read time: 5 mins
16 Mar 2020
Wading through an ‘infodemic’ amidst the pandemic

In February, when the news of the first few confirmed cases of coronavirus in India came to light, we as a nation warmed up to the ‘Wuhan virus’, now at our doorstep. The mainstream media rushed to report on emerging new cases and debated if our infrastructure could handle this epidemic. Social media was abuzz with guidelines and ‘pro-tips’ on what and what not to do, nevermind the accuracy. Phones rang non-stop; every conversation revolved around the new infection in town, and the caller tune was soon a part of it! WhatsApp joined in too, spewing theories on the cause of this outbreak and what could ‘cure’ it. In all, we were drowned in surplus information—an infodemic so to say—amidst what is today a pandemic.

The world rang in 2020 with a mysterious outbreak of a flu-like infection that was rapidly spreading in China’s Wuhan, and turning fatal for some. After much scrambling, it was identified as COVID-2019, short for coronavirus disease 2019, a never-seen-before viral infection. Within days, it spread to neighbouring Singapore, and in a couple of months, into all continents except Antarctica. With no signs of the infection slowing down, the world has slipped into an understandable panic. We now face a previously unknown strain of the virus, spreading like wildfire, with no known cure. While scientists scratch their heads to find a vaccine, which will take about a year or more, the virus is running amok, trying to reach across the globe.

On the 11th of March, the World Health Organisation, which has been closely monitoring the outbreak, declared it to be a ‘pandemic’ due to its severity and spread. As of today, 5735 people have succumbed to it globally while 153,517 are confirmed to have been infected. India so far has reported two deaths and 115 confirmed cases of COVID-2019, and has issued travel advisories and visa cancellations to restrict international travel. A few states have decided to close down schools and ban public gatherings. A loose canon here, however, is the (mis)information, which should have been reigned in.

As a result of misinformation, the world witnessed xenophobic and racist slurs against the Chinese, and their diet was blamed for the plight. Who cares if there is only a little evidence on what exactly started the outbreak! The Ministry of Health in India issued an embarrassing statement claiming that homoeopathy and Unani could help prevent and manage this infection. Now, from turmeric to cow urine, everything is being touted as a panacea. Panic buying of face masks is not only shooting up their price but has emptied the stocks at the pharmacy stores. Hand sanitisers are vanishing from the aisles in supermarkets across the world. What we all have to do instead is to keep calm and wash our hands!

COVID-2019 is not the first pandemic the world has seen nor will it be the last. In recent times, the swine flu pandemic of 2009 and the dreaded Spanish flu of 1918 have resulted in many deaths. HIV/AIDS, whose spread is now under control, is still a ‘current pandemic’. But lessons from history are loud and clear—panic takes us nowhere; it is the awareness that helps.

How do we then manage our anxiety when we are incessantly fed with information on the surge in infection rates and deaths? After all, there is no medical cure! Let’s take a deep breath and try to understand how these infections are surfacing, who are at risk of being infected severely, what symptoms do we have to watch out for, and most importantly, what to do if we suspect the infection in our loved ones. Unfortunately, there are too many unverified sources giving out ill-informed, unscientific advise and sieving them to find a reliable source is not easy. Thankfully, WHO has swung into action to dispel these myths and rumours. Its website should probably be the first place we should seek information from, not the eye-catchy forwards on the phone. 

So far, it is known that COVID-2019 spreads when a healthy individual comes in contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets, which contain the virus. It could be the sneeze or the mucus. The virus needs these droplets to survive, and it can’t just be ‘in the air’. The WHO’s guidelines on protecting oneself from the disease recommend avoiding contact with these infected droplets and maintaining good hand-hygiene. The good news is that not all people who contact the virus succumb to it. About 96% of the infected individuals have survived, some with minimal medical care. Data says that the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and lung diseases are at a high risk of contracting the infection and needing immediate medical care. 

Countries have put their best foot forward in fighting this pandemic. During the initial days of the outbreak, China responded with quarantines and improving its healthcare infrastructure. Italy, which has seen over 800 deaths, has now enforced a mandatory lockdown to curtail the spread. The US has suspended all flights to Europe for thirty days. India has cancelled all existing travel visas until mid-April now has an alert system on the country’s outbreak of COVID-2019.

The research community, all over the world, has also come together to fight the infodemic by making the latest scientific finding on the disease readily available. Leading journals are immediately making almost all emerging research on COVID-2019 open access. The resource centres from The Lancet, Elsevier and Cell provide the latest scientific information to increase awareness and collaboration.

A recommended approach to containing the infection is to ‘flatten the curve’—slowing down infection rates through preventive measures and avoiding an overwhelming burden on the healthcare system. When the number of infections is not too many in a short time interval, there are higher chances of addressing it better with possibly fewer casualties. This approach, the experts believe, is what could help us sail through the pandemic we are in. And for the infodemic, let’s keep calm and verify the source of information before lapping it up. Until a brighter day, wash your hands and stay off your face.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Deccan Herald. The numbers have been updated to reflect the current situation.