The virus has a new name: Infodemic

World Health Organization leaders take point on combatting misinformation and fear-mongering associated with the coronavirus


Two new words recently entered my vocabulary; COVID-19 and “infodemic.” The former, as we now know, is the new name for novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, and the latter is the true infection that is spreading at the speed of light.

As a great proponent of public health and its integration with EMS, always together on the front line of all public health issues and epidemics, I have been listening to the daily World Health Organization (WHO) briefings with great interest. They have been heavy on fact and evidence, refreshingly free of politics, and led from the front by the WHO Director-General (DG) himself, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. In addition to the report out on COVID-19 global cases, infections and deaths, the WHO briefings have constantly zeroed in on information and communication … which, if misunderstood or worse misused, can spread fear and panic. The infodemic within COVID-19, therefore, has a potentially strong association with the pathogen #fakenews and therefore must be understood.

At a recent briefing, a reporter accurately observed that it is hard to distinguish between truth, false information and misinformation, particularly in the light that the world is dealing with a virus that it knew nothing about just over a month ago. This key question asked how the WHO will fight against rumors without creating even bigger rumors and what suggestions the WHO would give other public institutions, authorities and media that will help with combatting misinformation and fake news.

The WHO and its approach to both COVID-19 and managing the infodemic is a lesson in leadership and the discipline of remaining focused on the aim of defeating this public health disaster. (Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP)
The WHO and its approach to both COVID-19 and managing the infodemic is a lesson in leadership and the discipline of remaining focused on the aim of defeating this public health disaster. (Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP)

Reducing coronavirus fears

The Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, Dr. Michael J. Ryan, the man taking point on the global response, tackled the issue head-on. Ryan responded that, “there is an understandable confusion that occurs at the beginning of an epidemic, when you don’t know your enemy and the fear of that enemy grows because you don’t understand the nature of your enemy as people come to terms with that, it's difficult. We need to be careful to label misunderstanding versus misinformation – there is a difference as people can misunderstand and overreact – that can happen and information cures that.”

As an old soldier, I immediately recognized the description as what the military terms the “fog of war,” where uncertainty dominates one’s situational awareness, only clearing once enough intelligence is gathered to help understand what has rapidly and unexpectedly unfolded. Only once the fog is cleared and informational visibility is restored, can a positive course of action be determined.

Dr. Ryan’s key point was that we must understand the virus and come to terms with it as well as know what to do to reduce the risk of catching or transmitting it. Accurate, scientific information and a true representation of where the virus is and where it is going is key to our understanding and, in turn, reducing the fear that we may have of this unknown.

Ryan warned that we must be wary of the bad actors that might use misinformation, the manipulation of information and the misdirection of populations to cause mischief, fear and panic, all of which could occur at the local, national or international level. No sooner had this observation been made than the Russian TV Channel One evening news program “Vremya” began broadcasting conspiracy theories on the virus and who was to blame, making Ryan’s point elegantly.

Defeating a public health threat

In the subsequent WHO briefings, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has continued the theme of facts, not fear, paraphrasing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and contending that fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” and the path forward is with the “truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” The speed of social media, the medium the WHO itself is using to get the message out, is also clearly key to the acceleration of un-factual doses of fear. Realizing this, Ghebreyesus reported that the WHO has now asked companies such as Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms to ensure rumor mongers and conspiracy theorists are eliminated from their sites, and this is now happening.

The WHO and its approach to both COVID-19 and managing the infodemic is a lesson in leadership and the discipline of remaining focused on the aim of defeating this public health disaster. While it may well get worse before it gets better, Tedros, Ryan and the team are using their window of opportunity wisely and it helps us defuse this from an airway and airwave induced timebomb.

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