[Reprinted: The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 10-5-2020]
An Editorial published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases addressed the COVID-19 infodemic. An infodemic is described by WHO as an “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that occurs during an epidemic”, and WHO is dealing with this issue proactively. The UN is also focusing on misinformation in connection with COVID-19, stating that misinformation is a virus and launching an initiative called Verified “to provide content that cuts through the noise to deliver life-saving information, fact-based advice and stories from the best of humanity”.
Initiatives such as Verified and WHO’s proposal, to manage the infodemic are fundamental, but, in some cases, as highlighted in the Editorial, the people responsible for disseminating misinformation are public figures such as elected officials like the presidents of Brazil and the USA. Misrepresentations from these public figures have included trivialising the risks of COVID-19, equating COVID-19 with seasonal influenza, questioning the effectiveness of mitigation and control measures (eg, the use of masks), promoting unproven treatments (eg, hydroxychloroquine), contradicting public health experts (even those from their own administrations), and politicising the vaccine development that is essential to the ultimate control of the pandemic.
There is no doubt that tackling the infodemic, and initiatives such as Verified, are relevant when confronting an unprecedented public health crisis, but perhaps more vigorous and innovative strategies should be developed to confront situations that can be described as calculated distortions of the truth perpetrated by certain public figures and politicians via the media, especially social media. These individuals act as though they can say whatever they want about COVID-19, spreading conspiracy theories and inaccurate information without fearing accountability.
In the USA, some families who have had relatives die due to COVID-19 have sought to hold those in power accountable, attributing their losses in obituaries to the failures and inaction of local, state, and national politicians who have misled the public. Going further, are there legal actions that could begin to hold to account prominent figures who have implied the pandemic is a hoax, all while rigorous safety measures were being implemented in their workplaces?
It is difficult to understand why elected officials would circulate misinformation about a pandemic, seemingly for short-term victories or momentary political gains, when their constituencies are becoming sick and dying. Imposing their misguided, and sometimes deadly, interpretations of the crisis on the public has been reckless and is a regrettable way of exercising power.