COVID 19: Health care crisis and mis-information

News Literacy

By: Lisa Hoover

Like much of the rest of the country, I recently converted to working at home to promote social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Also like much of the country (and probably the world, at this point) my social media feeds are flooded with information about COVID-19, some of it great, some of it not so great. Watching the flood of mis-information or information downplaying the importance of the virus has just reminded me how critical it is that we continue to find ways to combat mis-information and, more importantly, teach our citizens how to combat it as well. 

2019 No Fear! We’re gonna storm area 51! 2020 OMG! A virus with a 98% survivability rate!

The memes I am seeing range from relatively factually correct but misleading ones, like the “OMG! A virus with a 98% survivability rate!” meme. An early release (subject to change) of a CDC article indicates a range of 0.25% to 3% fatality rates for COVID-19. So the meme’s nod to a 2% fatality rate is technically correct. But it is misleading in that it downplays the importance of this number. According to the Census Bureau, the US population was 329,412,059 when I checked at 9:20 am on March 19. Math isn’t my strong suit, but my calculator tells me that 2% of our population is over 6.5 million people. Sure, everyone isn’t going to get infected, but that’s a pretty big potential number to be so casual about. 

COVID-19 and H1N1 Do you all see how the media can manipulate your life?

My personal favorite are the ones that imply media manipulation of the public via fear. Hoax alert has a good analysis of this one comparing COVID-19 to H1N1, which Facebook offered me with their new feature flagging questionable content. According to Hoax Alert’s fact check, there are multiple problems with this one. (NOTE: The numbers in the meme appear to vary.) “Some variations of the meme have more accurate or recent numbers but all variations present the numbers in a highly misleading manner, omitting the fact that the H1N1 cases and deaths are for more than a full year and the coronavirus cases happened in just a few weeks at the start of a curve that is (still) increasing exponentially,” according to the fact check. “H1N1 was also far less lethal to those it infected compared to the current coronavirus (which has a mortality rate more than 100 times higher according to recent estimates).” The story goes on to support this analysis with numbers and links out to past news stories and the CDC, among other sources. It also points out the problem with the statement that the media was “totally chill” with the H1N1 outbreak, which was attended by its own swath of media coverage and public fear. The whole analysis is well worth a read. 

 Every Election Year has a disease meme

A similar meme tries to tie the media coverage of the outbreak to the upcoming election. Facebook also provided a helpful link to an analysis of this one. First, the dates attributed to the outbreaks in the meme are not always correct. SARS occured in 2002-2003, not 2004, for example, according to this fact check. As for the note about “contagion factor,” the analysis argues that this is not a scientific term; scientists refer to “reproduction number,” which tracks how quickly an infection can spread. The author cites an article from The Journal of Travel Medicine to show that we don’t know the reproduction number for COVID-19 yet, but that it seems to range from 2 to 6.5, so the “contagion factor of 2” statement is misleading, as is the note that Corona Virus has a cure rate of 99.7% for those under 50, as discussed above. 

And, unfortunately, the mis-information isn’t limited to just memes. I also saw this article citing an “MIT biologist” for the idea that the media is over-emphasizing the outbreak and causing “damage” to citizens and our “fragile” healthcare systems. I fact checked this one myself, starting with the cited MIT scientist. I figured it should be easy enough to confirm whether or not the scientist works for MIT. I did a quick look at the directory, which found no matches to the name Shiva Ayyadurai. Next, I Googled his name and MIT. This helped me find, among other things, his Shiva for Senate page. Apparently he has degrees from MIT, but doesn’t work for them, so the statement that he is an “MIT biologist” is misleading. It also appears his career has been largely spent working for tech companies, not in biology, although his CV does say he has a PhD in biological engineering, specifically systems biology, from MIT. He also appears to have been a lecturer at MIT earlier in the 2000s, and his most recent tech company is a drug company. MIT has since distanced itself from him, saying they no longer wanted him “associated with the EMAIL lab,” and professors are quoted by Boston Magazine as calling him an “asshole,” a “dick,” and a “loon.” Given his area of expertise and his history, quoting him as an expert on the outbreak is questionable. 

Logo for the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As citizens, we need to be vigilant and careful about what we share, making sure we only share reliable information from strong sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization or reputable sources that are citing back to the reliable sources. We also need to keep an eye out for updated information, as information can change daily, such as this update to a Science Alert notice on Ibuprofen and COVID-19. 

As librarians, we can help by curating lists of reliable sources and, as much as possible, being available (in many cases remotely) to provide reference services and point our users to reliable sources. We can continue to do what we always do – serve as touchstones for patrons looking for reliable information in a time of stress. We can do our best to help them sort through the bad and misleading information and promote the more reliable information. 

In other words, keep doing what you do best!

References: 

  • Cooper, R. (2020) Fact Check: Meme does NOT contain accurate figures for H1N1 deaths in the United States. Hoax Alert. Retrieved from March 19, 2020. 
  • Nanos, J. (2012) Return to sender. Boston Magazine. Retrieved from March 19, 2020. 
  • TechStartups Team. (2020) MIT biologist says fear mongering on coronavirus will go down as biggest fraud to manipulate economies. Tech Startups. Retrieved from March 19, 2020.
  • Teoh, F. (2020) No, not every U.S. election year has had a disease outbreak and COVID-19 transmissibility is unconfirmed. Health Feedback. Retrieved from March 19, 2020. 
  • Wilson, N.; Kvalsvig, A.; Barnard L. T.; & Baker, M. G. (2020) Case-fatality risk estimates for COVID-19 calculated by using a lag time for fatality. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 26 (6) Retrieved from March 19, 2020.

Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

2 comments

  • I would also like to add the need for authoritative resources around the DIY movement for making first responder masks. As well intended a lot of people are out there we need to be careful to not jump on the band wagon and make the resources even more scarce for manufacturers that are authorized to make said equipment. My first hand experience in my community has been one of wanting to help to facing the reality that this equipment is far more complicated than just printing on our 3d printers. Stick to the facts and consult with your local medical professionals before moving forward with any project.

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