A Parallel Pandemic of Misinformation

Instead of conspiracy theories and blame games, society has to come together to perform its moral duty

A Parallel Pandemic of Misinformation

Dr Muhammad Muzamil

Viruses are infamous for their morbidity. But despite having such a bad reputation, these tiny creatures can sometimes be very friendly to humans. Indeed, they are used as therapeutic agents and in vaccines to reprogramme the immune system. Currently, the “SARS-CoV-2” (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), of which there is very little genetic information known, is ruling the world. This nanoparticle is traversing all latitudes and longitudes, but alongside it a misinformation campaign has gone even more viral, creating a parallel pandemic of misinformation.
Many conspiracy theories are being propagated. Some pinpoint a passage from a 1981 book, ‘The Eyes of Darkness’, by Dean Koontz. Some exaggerate the Simpson & Nostradamus predictions. Some doubt the Wuhan Institute of Virology and say it is an artificially created bioweapon. Some believe in the hypothesis that bats passed on this virus to an intermediate host and then it passed on to humans. The speculation goes on.
Though the current pandemic is very threatening because of high infectivity and transmission rate, it is not going to end the world. The way information is presented by the media regarding this pandemic depicts that losses loom larger than gains. When the options are framed in terms of deaths rather than cures, we get more fearful and accept more risks to try to avoid dying. Although it is always better to be pr-active than reactive while dealing with a pandemic, overwhelming oneself by negative emotions will in no case prove fruitful. Everyone is magnifying the deaths but no emphasis is given to the fact that most Covid-19 cases are mild and most patients recover. The mortality rate of this disease is just 3.4% as reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In such circumstances we have to stay rational, which only means taking precautionary measures. But along with breaking the transmission chain, the misinformation chain also needs to be broken. Instead of storming people with biased news, necessary information needs to be conveyed with absolute objectivity. It’s very unfortunate that sometimes the virus is given a communal colour merely on the basis of self-fulfilling prophecies, which as per Robert Merton (1968) are false definitions of the situation that evoke a behavior which makes the originally false conception to come true. Merton emphasizes that people with racial prejudices may treat people of other races in a way that leads to the confirmation of their prejudices. A classic example in this regard is reflected in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, in which the witches tell Macbeth that he will become the king. He believes in it so blindly that he chooses to be a murderer. In quite the similar way, some sections of media are using their prejudices as a base to attribute the spread of virus to a particular community. A diverse set of realities has been created for diverse people based on the type of the media accessible to them.
Now as death is dancing in the streets, it is better for all of us to bid good bye to prejudices and draw our attention towards the rights of people who are under isolation & quarantine because of the ongoing pandemic. Isolation is about separating persons who have tested positive for a disease from those who are not sick or may be sick because of some non-contagious disease. Quarantine separates or restricts movements of people who were exposed to the contagious disease, in order to check if they become sick. If we don’t follow these practices in their essence, both will be rendered useless. Quarantine is ethically more problematic than isolation because it involves the confinement of individuals who may not be necessarily infected. Besides, it forces people to be in spatial proximity with the infected ones.
The concept of “easy rescue” means that if someone is doing something to yield significant benefit to others, it is his moral obligation to practice it. In other words, if you can prevent something bad from happening by making only a moderate sacrifice, then it would be wrong not to do so. Peter Singer has very aptly explained it by saying, “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing”. In the context of Covid-19, people are morally bound to declare travel history and opt for self-quarantine in case they have recently arrived from affected regions. Willingly opting for quarantine has a psychological advantage over being enforced to go for quarantine.
The present crisis calls for a collective easy rescue duty. Administrative bodies have to be very careful about providing safety to the quarantined people because there are chances that in developing countries they may not get access even to basic facilities like water and sanitation. In some cases such persons may not be placed away from the positive cases, which is as necessary as preventing their contact with the susceptible. Besides, considering the highly contagious nature of the disease, healthcare workers may face the dilemma whether to prefer patient care or self-care.
A moral theorist may say that health professionals have a duty to treat just like firefighters have the duty to fight fires and hence the personal attributes of the patient in the form of nature of disease should not become a base for discrimination. In line with this notion, the current pandemic demands special positive duties from the health professionals because risk is the part and parcel of profession of medicine. If someone has chosen to enter public safety roles, society expects them to accept the risk attached to the same. But the medical professionals here have the right to dissent as they have not given any consent to the employer for bearing the risks associated with treatment of infectious disease, and all the physicians are not infectious disease specialists. A research study carried out in western countries by Alexander and Wynia (2003) reported that among the one thousand physicians associated with American Medical Association, only about half of the respondents believed that they had the duty to treat even in case of outbreak of unknown deadly diseases. The same may or may not hold true in context of Jammu & Kashmir, but we cannot assume that health care workers have given the consent to treat infectious diseases by default and thereby do nothing for the sake of their rescue.
As the health care workers are leading from the front to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, affirmative steps need to be taken by the administrators. Before the situation in our hospitals turns out to be akin to hell’s waiting room, enough of personnel protective equipment (goggles, face-shields, masks, gloves, gowns, head covers and shoe covers) need to be procured. The administrative bodies, health professionals, academicians, media and the people need to create a point of intersection from where the efforts can be channelized properly to deal with the pandemic in a planned manner.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kashmir. [email protected]

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