Coronavirus has been gaining global attention over recent months. Coronaviruses are zoonotic diseases (meaning they are transmitted between animals and humans) and can range from the common cold to more severe diseases. In terms of symptoms, coronaviruses can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath, and in more severe cases, pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.
The current strain, commonly referred to as COVID-19, has been sweeping the media since December 2019. All types of media outlets around the world are now constantly and rapidly reporting the spread, impact and characteristics of the new virus.
The role of the media in outbreak reporting and control is critical. Media outlets can reach a large amount of the population, release digestible information, and alert the public of the latest outbreak updates. In this regard, media sources are an essential access point for members of the public gaining public health information, including general updates on a novel virus like coronavirus and answers to specific questions like: where the disease comes from, how it spreads, who is most vulnerable, how deadly it is, and how likely someone is to get it. This information can ultimately play a critical role in slowing down the spread of infection, and this is especially important during a pandemic like COVID-19, as it is spreading quickly.
While many media sources report evidence-based findings that are accurate and from reliable sources, it’s important to remember that many media outlets are for-profit businesses that profit off of views and clicks. It can therefore be in their favour to report as much as possible about COVID-19 because, like any infectious disease outbreak, it has the potential to bring in more revenue. And with this, comes the potential for fear and misinformation to spread, which can have direct public health consequences.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency (meaning it poses a serious risk to several countries and concerted international efforts need to take place to control the disease), and on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
So how should we best respond to a global public health emergency?
In his blog, Bill Gates explains the basic situation that many public health decision-makers face when there is a new emerging infectious disease or global health emergency: a need to 1) solve the immediate problem and 2) prevent a similar problem from occurring in the future.
In the case of COVID-19, addressing the immediate problem (part 1) entails controlling the current outbreak. In other words, coordinated public health efforts need to take place to prevent further spread of the disease. With COVID-19, these efforts include public education (on what the disease is, how it spreads, etc.) and promoting preventative measures like hand-washing and social distancing such as encouraging people to stay home if they feel sick and quarantining those who are infected.
Furthermore, providing accessible, affordable and acceptable treatment for those already infected with COVID-19 needs to simultaneously take place. Meanwhile, promoting further public health education and introducing sanitary measures, especially during food handling, can prevent an outbreak from occurring in the future (part 2).
All this may sound rather straightforward, but it’s an incredibly arduous task that takes a lot of resources and public health coordination. It becomes more complex when counterproductive, fear-mongering and harmful misinformation is being circulated. There is therefore an urgent need for people to be presented with accurate, up-to-date, and credible health information during a disease outbreak like COVID-19.
While there are many credible media sources, some outlets intentionally, or unintentionally, report misinformation during a period of heightened reporting. The potential for this rises when media sources are continually reporting the latest individual cases, and in some instances, even suspected cases. As a result, the potential for inaccurate reporting rises during an emerging pandemic. Meanwhile, reports on tuberculosis, HIV or malaria — all 3 of which are responsible for nearly a third of all deaths globally— are not given the same amount of concentrated reporting as new, threatening diseases.
Inaccurate reporting can have direct public health consequences. For instance, misinformation during the 2019 Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) contributed to difficulties in controlling the virus. Circulating rumours amongst communities affected by the Ebola lead to the spread of misinformation. Specifically, stories and rumours spread in the DRC that international aid and medical workers were responsible for the outbreak, which put a hindrance on the delivery of adequate health care and public health measures to control the outbreak.
Similarly, with COVID-19, researchers have found that the spread of misinformation can cost lives during an outbreak. A study by Public Health England found that those who believe misinformation are less likely to make health decisions that would protect themselves and others, such as hand-washing, thus making them more susceptible to and more likely to spread viruses such as COVID-19.
In addition to misinformation, when we are all bombarded with an influx of reporting on a specific disease outbreak, fear can spread. This fear can have downstream effects, such as social discrimination and racism, which Chinese Canadians have experienced given the virus’ origin from Wuhan, China.
Much like the SARS outbreak in 2003, Chinese Canadians in Toronto are facing hate, racism and discrimination, associated with COVID-19. Chinese Canadian-owned businesses in the city have thus been suffering revenue losses due to fears of contracting the virus, and Chinese Canadians have been receiving hate messages on social media that are blaming them for the outbreak. Discriminatory behaviour, fueled by fear, can have a long lasting effect on individuals, businesses, and communities. During outbreaks, it is imperative that we don’t let our fears and prejudices escalate into racism, panic and xenophobia.
In the current COVID-19 outbreak, masks seem to be a large topic of misinformation. The public is being continually bombarded with conflicting information over whether they should wear masks, which mask to wear, quantities of masks available in their region, and who should wear masks and why. This has cumulatively led to an influx of people wearing masks in public as a defense against COVID-19, and in some places, it’s now even being seen as trendy and fashionable.
While one may think, “What’s the harm of wearing a mask?” it’s important to consider this: masks can be counterproductive and can actually increase one’s risk of contracting the virus if they are not worn properly and are not combined with proper hand-washing.
For instance, specific COVID-19 recommendations include avoiding touching one’s face, as this can cause the virus to be transferred from one’s hands to their eyes, nose or mouth, thus entering the body and causing someone to get sick. However, while I was on a trip to California in mid-January, when news surrounding COVID-19 started escalating, I witnessed a couple in the Los Angeles Airport (LAX) who were wearing what looked like simple medical masks, ski goggles and rubber gloves.
This couple was constantly touching their phones, food, bags and other belongings, yet they also touched their faces, for instance, to remove their masks for passport checks at the gate — and they did this with the rubber gloves that had touched all the door knobs, bins at security, railings and door handles. While their protective gear may have provided them with a sense of protection, in fact, they may have been inadvertently increasing their likelihood of exposure, because they weren’t washing their hands and were touching their faces more often because of their protective face gear.
While this is a personal anecdote, many people around the globe have turned to masks as their primary source of protection against COVID-19, which when used improperly like the couple I witnessed in LAX, can actually increase your chances of exposure. Many experts agree that the effectiveness of masks depends entirely on the context.
Masks are effective in acting as a simple barrier between a symptomatic individual’s mouth and what lies on the other side of the mask for most droplet transmitted diseases such as COVID-19. If you therefore have no symptoms, a mask is not the most effective way of protecting yourself from the virus — hand-washing is.
When we’re uncertain about a new virus, it’s easy for us to rely on our feelings, surroundings (for instance, what people around us may be doing), and what information is immediately available to us. However, it’s imperative that we make decisions based on credible sources rather than relying solely on our gut instincts, panic, or the first piece of information that is available to us. As a news consumer, you can stay informed on the latest COVID-19 updates via the World Health Organization, CDC, government websites, and if you’re traveling, International SOS websites.
Moving forward, infectious diseases will continue to emerge, and the spread of misinformation is a direct threat to tackling them. Investing in comprehensive health education and programming is an upstream, preventative intervention that requires coordinated leadership from decision-makers and governments. It is of utmost importance that people are provided with accurate knowledge, skills and resources to think critically and make informed decisions during disease outbreaks.
Stephanie Wiafe (she/her/hers) is a Ghanaian-Canadian woman, currently located on the unsurrendered territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people. She is a highly skilled global public health professional and researcher, with a graduate degree in Public Health from Queen’s University and a Honour’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences from the University of Ottawa. Steph has cultivated a career dedicated to global public health equity, working alongside communities that experience severe social exclusion, isolation and health disparities.