Coronavirus and the toxic “infodemic”

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© UNICEF/UN017611/Ueslei Marcelino

In the past month, notifications and information on the spread of the corona virus have stirred up the globalised world. Panic and irrationality have advanced simultaneously and with comparable speed and intensity as the virus.

Not only have people started to panic buy and hoard food, but more dramatically pathogenic prejudice has spread and has set off a both disturbing an alarming wave of discrimination against people of Asian ethnicity. This discrimination ranges from direct attacks to (unconscious) fear and avoidance.

This can be explained by the dangerous social media “infodemic” fuelled by false information. The establishment of the information economy, digital channels and social media have all allowed greater international interconnectedness and range for the sharing of information. At the same time, they seem to have introduced a new potential for discrimination as it also facilitates the uncontrolled spread of dangerously toxic content.

Embarrassingly, people seem to feel more relieved when they have a scapegoat that they can blame. In some way it is human. It is a reflex. It is a way to safeguard from actualities that are unknown and precarious and thereby stirs up fears.

Discrimination is often very subtle and there seems to be great divergence when it comes to intention and perception. This however does not justifies it in any way!  

Discrimination and stigma linked to a disease is extremely dangerous and can pose a real public health challenge. It can drive people to hide the illness or symptoms, not seek health care and discourage them from adopting preventive behaviours.

In the case of the coronavirus social media has not only propagated doubtful rumours on the emergence of the virus, but also has brought forth absurd methods for prevention. It must be noted that not only infectious diseases like Corona are linked to discrimination and prejudice. For many patients with genetic and chronic disease being labelled, stereotyped and separated has become daily routine.

While this discrimination is most apparent in individual social interactions in the form of avoidance and abuse, it also operates on an institutional and structural level. For example, having a certain condition can affect a patient’s access to public services like education, healthcare and employment.

For instance, cancer patients still face difficulties when it comes to the reintegration into the working world. Also, patients with HIV, depressions and anxiety disorders as well as with dermatologic conditions are affected on multiple levels. Even more appallingly age, sex, ethnicity as well as religious and sexual orientation still effect the access and treatment of patients, even in the western world.

Facts and scientifically validated information should serve as antidote for the spread of misinformation and consequently discrimination. It must be the highest priority and responsibility of both state media (TV, radio, websites, newspapers etc.) and politicians to provide objective data and not stir mass panic with dramatic headlines. Guidance to actions should be provided and the spread of fake news should be controlled.

For more information about the new coronavirus and how to protect yourself, visit unicef.org/coronavirus

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