Pandemic of Misinformation


Sign erected by residents outside their village to keep off Covid suspects in North Kashmir- KO Photo

Misinformation Campaign & Easy Rescue in context of COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Muhammad Muzamil

VIRUSES are always in news for their morbidity and mortality. These tiny creatures despite having such a bad reputation can sometimes be very friendly to the humans, as they can be used as therapeutic agents by reprogramming them to treat the various diseases. Owing to their complex nature, Andre Lwoff- the French microbiologist and Nobel laureate rightly stated that “viruses are viruses”.

Currently, “SARS-CoV-2” (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) with the very little genetic information is ruling the world rendering masses sleepless as this nanoparticle is now traversing all latitudes and longitudes. But, the misinformation campaign is going more viral than the virus itself, thereby creating a parallel pandemic of misinformation.

Many conspiracy theories are being propagated. Some pinpoint a passage from 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 and the uncertainty 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, and so when the options are framed in terms of deaths rather than cures, we get more fearful and accept more risks to try to avoid deaths. Although it is always better to stay overactive than non-reactive while dealing with a pandemic, overwhelming oneself by the negative emotions will in no case prove fruitful. Everyone is magnifying the deaths but no emphasis is given on the fact that most COVID-19 cases are mild and recovering and that the mortality rate of this disease is just 3.4% as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).

In such circumstances we have to stay rational and put into action all the precautionary measures like practicing of social distancing which will eventually break the chain of transmission. But, the misinformation chain also needs to be dealt with by acting with responsibility. Instead of storming people with biased news, necessary information needs to be conveyed to them 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 believed so blindly that he choose to be a murderer and then used prediction of witches as the base for his actions. 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 time for all of us to bid good bye to the 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, so here the fulfillment of principle of collective easy rescue gathers scope.

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 very 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 this context people are morally bound to declare travel history and opt for self-quarantine in case they have recently arrived from the affected regions. Willingly opting for quarantine has a psychological advantage over being enforced to go for the 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 the basic facilities like water and sanitation. In some cases they may not be placed away from the positives 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 the public safety roles, society expects him 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 settings 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 have duty to treat even in case of the outbreak of unknown deadly disease. The same may or may not hold true in the context of Jammu & Kashmir, but we cannot assume that they 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, effective steps need to be taken by the administrators. Before the situation in our hospitals gets out of control, enough of personnel protective equipments (Goggles, face-shields, masks, gloves, gowns, head covers and shoe covers) need to be procured for preventing the break down of health care system, as the pandemic advances. The administrative bodies, health professionals, academicians, media and the people need to create a point of intersection where from the efforts can be channelized properly to deal with the pandemic in a planned manner.

Author is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kashmir. He can be reached at:

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