Coronavirus infodemic: Deadly threat of misinformation

(Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)     

Novel has claimed more than 1M lives worldwide but still viewed by many with suspicion

Last February and only a couple of months after the appearance of the novel coronavirus in China, the world was getting ready to face one more challenge: the abundance of fake medical information and conspiracy theories that would send thousands to the streets around the world.

Despite the fact that the world has turned upside down, there is a percentage of people who believe there is something behind all this.

Reality deniers, possibly out of fear as some experts claim, prefer to blame the virus, its origin, and spread on other factors.

"People that believe in these theories usually are people that tend to be mistrustful or have a paranoid tendency.

"In addition, conspiracists may take advantage of such situations for their own benefit," clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Thomas Maliaroudakis told Anadolu Agency.

"These individuals pose a risk to society especially during a pandemic as they are not willing to follow measures that have been suggested by experts and are therefore risking their own lives as well as the lives of people that surround them," he noted.

Some people blame former Microsoft CEO turned philanthropist Bill Gates for the spread of the coronavirus, claiming that he aims to profit from the vaccine and insert some kind of microchip into people, while others say it is caused by 5G phone networks or that it is a secret bioweapon from China, all leading to conspiracy theories.

Whatever the reason might be, such theories are many and have proliferated rapidly among people and are not always easy to debunk.

These theories are also the fundamental reason why many people do not follow the measures health authorities have imposed.

In 2003, political scientist David J. Rothkopf during the outbreak of the SARS pandemic warned in an article for the Washington Post of the danger of an "infodemic".

Rothkopf described infodemic as "a few facts mixed with fear, speculation and rumor amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies".

This infodemic, which according to the Oxford Dictionary is derived from the words "information" and "epidemic", is explained as an excessive amount of wrong information circulating rapidly and makes a solution more difficult to achieve.

"I believe the mask deniers are deniers of everything, a category of people that oppose everything without offering any practical solution," said Efi Dima, a mother of two.

Nowadays, the overabundance of information connected with COVID-19 is easily spread through social media and has brought together the anti-vaccination and anti-mask followers that tend to believe and follow these conspiracy theories.

"Conspiracy theories and myths have always had a certain appeal to a lot of people throughout history," Yulie Foka-Kavalieraki, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Athens, told Anadolu Agency.

"However, today's pandemic-related conspiracy theories are different," Foka-Kavalieraki explained.

"They spread exponentially faster through the internet and social media and they can literally be harmful, since belief in them tends to be associated with resistance to following public health recommendations, thus actively contributing to the spread of the virus itself."

Health experts continuously warn about the dangers that these kinds of indirect rumors spreading online mostly by anti-vaccination and anti-mask conspiracies pose.

Infectious disease specialist Nikos Sypsas, in one of his interviews, stressed the need to address misinformation which exacerbate the effects of the pandemic.

"I'm worried about the movement," he said of the mask deniers. "It's terribly dangerous. We have to give the right information, to convince everyone."

But many parents as well as young adolescents still reject its use.

Earlier in September, hundreds of people demonstrated in several cities in Greece against the use of masks and the existence of the virus itself. They chanted slogans against such measures, with some saying, "You will not shut our mouths! No to masks!" and others claiming that the use of masks can lead to CO2 intoxication or oxygen deficiency.

While more than 1 million COVID-19-related deaths and more than 43 million cases have been recorded worldwide, it is still viewed with suspicion by many.

"In the coronavirus pandemic, we also have the deniers of its existence," Anna Pardali, a pediatrician at the IASO Children's Hospital in Greece, told Anadolu Agency.

"They claim that it has been given selective credit for malicious purposes, often comparing it to the common flu, which has been deliberately underestimated," Pardali said.

"We compare two viruses which both cause many deaths but under completely different conditions," she explained. "The flu in an entirely free and normal daily routine, while the COVID-19 even under restrictive measures or even a lockdown where its dispersion is extremely unfavorable is still more contagious."

Natasa, 38, a mother of two who preferred to remain anonymous, stating only her first name, said: "Pharmaceuticals might be behind all this. They will force us to do the vaccine after it's developed and who knows what the implications might be."

Natasa participated in a September demonstration in central Athens where people chanted slogans against the use of masks.

Christos, the father of two girls, told Anadolu Agency he is afraid to let his two daughters use masks and is concerned for their health. He believes the masks will not let his daughters breathe and they will be intoxicated by excessive CO2.

COVID-19 is a challenge to public health and experts warn that the importance of measures such as using masks, social distancing, and later on vaccinations are essential to bring it under control.

"In our country, the official scientific associations such as the Hellenic Pediatric Society, the Hellenic Pediatric Pulmonary Society, and the professional Associations of Private Pediatricians have clearly supported the need to use masks for children, assuring that there is no cause for concern for safety in its use," Pardali stressed.

Despite the fact that conspiracy theories lack evidence to support their claims, their popularity has had a global reach as they are easy to grasp and accept.

"Conspiracy theories generously offer simplistic and super-easy to swallow -- albeit false -- explanations of complicated situations and events," said Foka-Kavalieraki.

Humans tend to favor simplicity over complexity, she concluded.

Experts believe that societal crises like pandemics will continue to appear throughout time and so conspiracy theories will always find a way to take root and grow, as fear, uncertainty, and loss of control will trigger these thoughts.

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