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Fake News in the Age of COVID-19: Remembering Our Responsibility

March 15, 2020
Source: Center for Disease Control.

Over the past month, I’ve heard many things about the coronavirus.

I heard that it was brought to humans by bats, and then I heard that it was brought to humans by pangolins. I heard that CNN definitely reported that it has been proven to be a lab-made virus. I heard that it’s biological warfare waged by China, and then I heard that it’s biological warfare waged by the United States against China. I heard that UNICEF (not the relevant organisation) ensured us that the virus dies if it is exposed to over 23 degrees centigrade. I heard that this virus is only a hoax, and that since the number of people infected are roughly the same number as the residents of Heliopolis, we shouldn’t even be taking it seriously.

Every single one of these assertions is either unconfirmed or untrue.

Left, right, and center, I am receiving forwarded messages, seeing posts, hearing through word of mouth things that are either telling me not to panic at all – it’s no different to a flu – or to panic to the point of locking myself into my house for a month.

But what is most disturbing to me is not this sudden bombardment with falsehoods spoken with utter confidence, but rather the sources through which the falsehoods reached me. I heard all of these assertions from people who absolutely have the means, skills, and knowledge to verify the information they receive and spread. Some falsehoods even reached me from the mouths of doctors and healthcare professionals, as well as influential personalities and media figures.

But it’s not only that. When such a falsehood reaches a person who tests information for its veracity, a branch of the falsehood’s spread will cease to grow. But the opposite happens when the information spreads to someone who is either unable or unwilling to test it for its veracity?

Though it’s highly likely that none of these people had any intention to deceive me or anyone else they shared this information with, the fact of the matter is that they probably did anyway.

The first part of ‘Flattening the Curve’, a comic by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, explaining that by taking the necessary precautions, the number of cases will be much more limited and the healthcare system is less likely to be stretched.

COVID-19 (which is short for Corona Virus Disease 2019) is a disease that has been spreading at an alarming rate in every part of the world. And while some demographic groups are not in danger of experiencing anything much harsher than a bout of flu, and 92 percent of active cases are in mild condition and 93 percent of closed cases ended in recovery or discharge, the disease has proven fatal to over 5000 people so far, and over 3000 new cases have been registered today alone.

Though the percentage of fatalities (estimated between 2 percent and 3.5 percent) sounds low, complacency is not a sensible response. The vulnerable patients that fell victim to this disease may be no more than a statistic to someone hearing of them from a distance, but their loss is a call for caution.

These statistics are reason enough for us to be wary of the responsibility we have in containing the spread, sparing loved ones, ensure that our fragile healthcare system is not put at risk by a rapid outbreak, and for those who have the means to verify information to realise the responsibility they have toward the people around them.

The second part of ‘Flattening the Curve’, a comic by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, explaining that by taking the necessary precautions, the number of cases will be much more limited and the healthcare system is less likely to be stretched.

While someone who was unable to complete their education and barely has internet access cannot be blamed for believing that simply getting enough vitamin C will rid you of any virus, a multilingual millennial, with a university degree and the ability to think critically, or a person with knowledge in medicine or pharmacy, is responsible for the misinformation they spread.

Some of us will have formed some sort of opinion about this outbreak, and their opinions shape their decisions to spread unverified information. When they come across a post or video that says something they want to hear, or something that goes with their gut feeling, they click forward, share, and retweet. But when it comes to an exponentially spreading virus, confirmation bias and opinion are increase the risks exponentially.

There is also no room for jokes that may be interpreted as a truth. We are living in a historic time. Events are ever-unfolding and circumstances are unprecedented. Much of our current reality – Italy and Spain being in a state of nation-wide quarantine, Donald Trump testing for the virus – would have sounded like fever dreams about a month and a half ago.

So here is my plea to you, our readers: Just like you stocked up on snacks for the storm, stock up on the salt, because you’re going to have to take every piece of information you receive with a grain or two of it. Think of the vulnerable and immunocompromised before you share something you did not check the accuracy of.

Don’t interpret without scientific knowledge. Share only what you can verify. Don’t push people into a panic or lull them into a false sense of security. This is no laughing matter. Every individual needs to behave responsibly. And if you come across information you know is unverified, you have the responsibility to debunk it, even if that makes you a killjoy. That’s just as important as not spreading misinformation.

Oh, and don’t forget: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay at home if you’re sick, and respect policies imposed to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. You know that’s not too much to ask.

*The opinions and ideas expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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