Beware of COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

A respected science columnist writes, “As China admits that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is now the worst public health crisis that the country has faced since its founding, a group of scientists has sent out a piercing appeal for sobriety in media coverage of the epidemic.”

 The scientists in a statement published 19 February in one of the world’s leading science journals, Lancet, appealed for support for the scientists, public health professionals and medical professionals, according to Cris Maslog.

The statement goes: “We are public health scientists who have closely followed the emergence of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and are deeply concerned about its impact on global health and well-being. We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact, and share their results transparently with the global health community. This effort has been remarkable,” the scientists said, adding that the public must endorse and sign it. 

Maslog is a former journalist with Agence France-Presse in Manila and retired professor of journalism from Silliman and UP Los Banos. He has taught science journalism and now writes a science column for SciDev.Net. He is the  author of 37 books/editions in communication and communication education. He is the Insular-Life-Philippine Jaycees’ The Outstanding Filipino (TOFIL) Awardee in journalism and communication, 1995. 

The appeal by scientists for public endorsement cannot be timelier, writes Maslog. ”It comes at a time when the coronavirus  ‘infodemic’ is overshadowing the coronavirus epidemic itself. The communication specialist Maslog said he started to worry when his driver asked him one day if it was true that China’s government officials are killing people who are sick of the coronavirus there just to get rid of the virus.

 Maslog proceeded to interrogate him on where he got the information and scolded him, saying this was fake news. But what really got him worried was when no less than a senator of the Philippines played back in a public hearing in February in the halls of Philippine Congress a conspiracy theory video that claimed the coronavirus to be a form of ‘’bio-warfare’’ developed by the US against China.

Vicente Sotto, whose claim to fame before he was elected senator was as a broadcast personality, alleged his office had received the video anonymously and found it was ”somehow very interesting, if not revealing.” The theory has been debunked by experts, writes Maslog.

What happened next was just as interesting. Instead of first asking the opinion of the health experts present, Senator Sotto turned to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin for his comments. Locsin, a veteran journalist and publisher, immediately rejected the theory as the “craziest video.”

“But it was also crazy that Senator Sotto did not immediately ask for the opinions of the health officials present at the Senate hearing, particularly Health Secretary Francisco Duque III or WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe. It seems that Senator Sotto was looking for sensational angles rather than scientific opinions and who better to ask than a journalist?”

“This is a tendency to which most of us in the public are now inclined as we read and talk about the origins, nature and spread of COVID-19. Not even one responsible news medium in the Philippines criticized Senator Sotto for what he did – give legs to fake information.

“As of March 6 the novel coronavirus has killed more than 3,300 people, the vast majority in mainland China, according to CNN#39’s tally. There are now more than 97,000 global cases, with infections in at least 85 countries and territories.

Maslog informs that this COVID-19 epidemic that started in China and now threatens to be a worldwide pandemic brings to mind two epidemics in our lifetime – SARS and MERSCOV.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was a viral respiratory illness that was recognized as a global threat in March 2003, after first appearing in southern China in November 2002.

It reached Singapore on 25 February 2003, and Maslog had personal experience coping with public hysteria for months until the high-quality Singapore medical system and responsible media licked the virus three months later in May. A total of 238 probable SARS cases were reported in Singapore between March and May 2003, 33 of whom died. The first case was on 25 February while the last case was 5 May.”

Maslog was away from his  family in Los Banos as a visiting professor in Singapore. He overcame his initial jitters and later felt safe enough to go out to the market, take the bus to his office and make occasional forays downtown. It did cramp his social life, however.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is also a viral respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The crucial thing to remember in case of epidemics like these is to be informed, collected and aggressive in combating false information, writes Maslog.

Maslog continues that what makes COVID- 19 different from SARS and MERSCOV, however, is “not only its initial size but the milieu into which it was born. COVID-19 is now at a stage when it is likely going to be declared a pandemic and described with many others – thanks to social media.

“When SARS and MERSCOV were infecting people, the younger generation was only beginning to surf the Internet and use the original cell phone. Social media was still an infant.”

But now, a WHO official warns that false news was “spreading faster than the virus.” Claims are made that the virus is spread by eating bat soup or could be cured by garlic.

A WHO official has met officials of tech companies at Facebook#39’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, including those from Google, Apple, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and Sales force. Earlier he held talks with Amazon at the e-commerce giant#39’s headquarters in Seattle.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus was labeled a public health emergency, books on the disease have popped up on the e-retailer, says Maslog. And when users search for the word coronavirus on Amazon, listings for face masks and vitamin C pop up. Vitamin C has been listed as one of the fake cures for coronavirus.

In response, Facebook on 27 February announced that it is banning ads that “create a sense of urgency” about COVID 19 or suggest “cures or preventive measures” and “will remove posts that contain false information about the virus.”

“Most likely unintended, but in the foreseeable future we may have to fight the coronavirus on two fronts – the viral epidemic and the informational epidemic fronts.

“Rather than be passive recipients of news, we have to become critical and push back on all information that sounds ‘crazy’ and ‘conspiratorial’. The educated class should take the lead in doing this. Schools should be involved and introduce courses on media information literacy, starting with identifying fake news especially in relation to science and health.

“This is quite a challenge to both the medical scientists and the communication scientists. May both groups of scientists win.” 

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Email: [email protected]



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