Covid-19 misinformation

Updated March 31, 2020

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AS the fight against Covid-19 rages on across countries, a second crucial battle must be simultaneously fought to end another menacing phenomenon: misinformation.

At a time when fear and panic stemming from the virus are on the rise, the sheer volume of information and ‘news’ being shared about the infection is reaching unprecedented heights. Mobile phone and social media users are being constantly bombarded with misinformation, and the vast number of people sharing unverified claims is compounding the issue.

These claims, which eventually circulate as mass forwarded messages on WhatsApp, range from incorrect and misleading information on the origin of the virus to its symptoms and so-called cures. There is a potential danger in falling for these unscientific cures. In Iran, where alcohol is illegal, 44 people died and hundreds were hospitalised after drinking homemade booze as advised by such messages.

In Pakistan, these messages have included harmless home remedies like drinking garlic water but also dangerous advice such as encouraging people to try ‘blowing hot air from a hair dryer through your nostrils’. This newspaper recently fact-checked a fake notification that was doing the rounds on social media, claiming that Pakistan’s health ministry had suggested that a prevention method was to keep one’s throat moist.

WHO has rightly declared this as an ‘infodemic’ — an excessive amount of information which makes the solution to a problem more difficult. Citizens must address their fears and queries by using legitimate sources of information. For global updates, the most reliable source of information is WHO. In Pakistan, people looking for accurate information must turn to the government and trusted news sources — while also being wary of ‘fake news’ ie photoshopped images which falsely purport to belong to an organisation.

In this crisis, it is the responsibility of citizens to exercise caution and be more discerning about the information they pass on. If the ‘news’ is not available on official channels and if one is not sure about its veracity or source, it is not worth sharing.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020