Information is a weapon and can be used both to create awareness and also degrade capabilities while fighting an adverse situation. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought with it the challenge that was even otherwise inevitable in today’s information-based environment. While misinformation can barely be controlled in a democratic society, there is a need to fight it, and one such means is by dissemination of correct information by the government and authorized agencies. The author relates the phenomenon to the COVID-19 crisis and offers some tangible solutions.
At the time of writing this report, the global statistics of COVID-19 cases have crossed 800,000 marks. The number of deaths recorded has gone over 42,000, recovered cases over 178,378, mild condition cases over 606,134 and serious over 32,898. In India, total cases have crossed over 1600, active cases 1397, cured cases 148 and deaths 45. Not surprisingly Pakistan is having more cases than India for obvious reasons of greater connectivity with China and porous borders with Iran, Afghanistan and China.
Why have I quoted these figures? It is purely to emphasize first that we are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic and secondly in such a catastrophic situation, we must only believe in authentic sources for information. These figures are being updated every minute at WHO and Government of India Sites.
Accordingly, on issues related to symptoms, treatment and other COVID 19 related management practices, the public must believe in the information provided by the official resources i.e., Ministry of Health at the Central and State Government or their appointed spokespersons.
One can turn around and say but all this is known, so why repeat it. However, I wish to highlight that on the ground, misinformation which is being spread in the unaware public domain through various traditional and social media channels, either intentionally or unintentionally, is going to lead to complex problems in tackling the pandemic being caused by COVID-19. For example, there are some people associated with government machinery endorsing treatment and method to deal with COVID-19 without any scientific basis.
We need to learn from the experience of other countries as well to not repeat the same mistakes. Nigeria had faced tremendous problems in managing the Ebola crisis due to misinformation campaign in 2014. Even now despite only 139 cases, Nigerian Government is finding it ten times difficult to control misinformation related to COVID-19 than the Ebola crisis.
As per a Global Development Community Media (a well-known media platform associated with reputed world development agencies) report written by William Worley and Vidya Krishnan, level of misinformation being spread about COVID is highest in India. It has highlighted several incidents of conflicting information coming out of official and non- official sources besides the social media which has in my view created a lot of confusion. Some samples from their report are:
- While, the health ministry is working closely with the World Health Organization including the Public Health Foundation of India to launch a coordinated response, another arm of the government — AYUSH Ministry — has been at the centre of a large-scale disinformation campaign that undermines the health ministry’s response. This needs to be corrected.
- Second incident is that of a politician who was proposing Gaumutra as a remedy for the treatment of COVID-19 even while the scientists including those in India are battling to find a solution.
Similarly, if we were to scan the social media, especially YouTube, one can find solutions being rolled by all and sundry ranging from outright astrology to homemade remedies without any scientific backing. Information of some myths prevailing in the social media domain such as “longevity of Corona Virus”, “non-survivability of the virus in a hot climate”, “totkas”(possible alternate medicines to cure COVID without scientific validation), “holding the breath, to check if someone is affected by Corona” and so on will only cause complications and problems in the management of affected cases.
Towards this end, PM Modi’s strong message of not taking any medicines without proper consultation with a qualified doctor hopefully will go a long way in curbing the misinformation campaign as it leads to complications in treatment and more often than not panic.
However, the PM’s call has to be backed by a focused mechanism to irradiate the menace of the misinformation campaign. How can we do it? Some of the measures suggested are as follows:
- Ministry of Health can set up a Task Force in consultation with Ministry of Information to scan the Social Media and put out the truth on regular basis in the form of press brief or press bulletins using all available media networks for countering or clarifying such messages and information. It is not that the Task Force should respond to every fake and silly news. However, it must put out clarification on any incorrect and fake news item that is likely to cause harm to human lives and the national economy. If we do not curb the misinformation campaign in time, the 21-day lockdown may not be fully successful and as PM Modi had warned nation will have to pay a heavy price in terms of unprecedented loss of human lives and economic cost.
- The second measure could be coopting the technical giants like FaceBook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other techie firms to direct all searches related to COVID-19 either to Ministry of Health or Ministry of Information or WHO sites only so that people are fed information related to COVID-19 that are genuine and authentic. As per the report mentioned above, some of the Big Tech companies are already helping the WHO in this regard. There is a need for the Indian Government to also see the feasibility of doing the same in this context.
- While the government has launched an awareness campaign about COVID-19 through caller tunes and advertisements, there is need for a focused nationwide program on important aspects dealing with COVID at a fixed time in the day with a repeat broadcast by all TV and radio Channels. This slot must capture the highlights of the day and important procedures to be followed in managing COVID-19.
The importance of curbing misinformation can be best understood by the statement made by WHO, Director General, TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus. He had said recently that “misinformation about COVID-19 is not limited to India. We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. Therefore, in this period of infodemic, the safest advice is to stay home, wash hands, maintain social distancing, and if in doubt seek early medical assistance and help the government to help you remain SAFE.
By Lt Gen Dushyant Singh (Retd)