- With the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the world is experiencing a parallel outbreak of an “infodemic,” with misinformation adding to global panic and fueling conspiracy theories.
- Some conservationists have speculatively linked environmental concerns to the new virus, raising a serious risk of hurting the environmental cause by straying into speculation without evidence.
- Countering the disinformation requires concerted efforts by governments, academia, civil society and all others keen to sustain evidence-based public discourse and action.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
A surfeit of disinformation is hampering public health efforts to contain and counter the coronavirus disease before it turns into a fully-fledged global pandemic.
Various conspiracy theories are circulating about the origins of the new disease, now officially named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Parallel to these, claims of substances that can give anti-viral protection or “cure” those infected have also been spreading through both mass media and social media. Everybody from herbal therapists to divine faith healers seem to have jumped on the corona bandwagon.
In recent days, some conservationists have joined the fray. They probably mean well, but risk hurting the environmental cause by straying into speculation without evidence.
A prominent example involves pangolins, the scaly anteaters that are the most trafficked animals in the world. It started when a Chinese research team suggested that pangolins could be harboring this particular coronavirus that was first reported in humans in China’s Hubei province.
China’s Xinhua News Agency reported on Feb. 7 that a study led by the South China Agricultural University analyzed more than 1,000 samples from wild animals and found genome sequences of viruses in pangolins to be 99% identical to those in COVID-19 patients. Until then, the closest genetic similarity was found in a coronavirus isolated from bats.
This opened up the possibility that pangolins could be the intermediate host or “missing link” between bats and humans. However, the study has not yet been published; media reports were based only on a university press release.
It is true that pangolins are in demand in China for their meat and their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international trade in all eight pangolin species. However, pangolins are still smuggled across borders into China to meet the demand.
Some conservation groups were quick to amplify the suspected link between pangolins and COVID-19. Ensuing social media discussions saw references to a “revenge of the pangolins.”
Many scientists cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the Chinese research is published or reviewed.
Protecting pangolins is undoubtedly an important conservation goal but it does not warrant using unconfirmed science. Advocacy today needs scientific evidence, based on which effective storytelling can be done.
Voices of reason
Already, voices of reason within the conservation community are making just this point.
Pangolin Conservation, a U.S.-based advocacy group, reacted to CITES on the latter’s Facebook page: “Honestly wish CITES would not encourage dataless propaganda to be encouraged like this until we have a better idea of what it was. If they’re wrong (and there are good indications they may be) this could also hurt conservation efforts.”
Jonathan Kolby, founding director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center, has also spoken out about “environmentalism and conservationism building on racist narratives.” He says he is concerned that some conservationists are trying to connect Chinese food and medicinal practices to the spread of COVID-19.
In an op-ed, Kolby, a conservation biologist and former CITES policy specialist, wrote: “Environmentalism and conservationism are noble and vital pursuits. But dialogues about coronavirus should not allow the topic of wildlife conservation to provide a smokescreen for prejudice. It’s OK to become angry that pangolins are going extinct; we should use this energy constructively to learn more about the issue and possibly support conservation efforts.”
This resonates with my own observations in Sri Lanka, where in recent weeks some social media posts have used the presumed link between wildlife and COVID-19 to promote vegetarianism or to condemn Chinese dietary choices.
Some have also described animal-originated coronaviruses as “Mother Nature striking back.” Alas, this is becoming a common refrain among some environmentalists who try to turn their movement into a religion-like regime complete with sinners and saints.
While such talk is unhelpful, other messages being swapped around in social media can cause real harm. Falling into this category is the opportunistic marketing by peddlers of herbal remedies that can supposedly guard users against coronavirus infection.
As public health experts have reiterated, for example in a recent commentary in the medical journal The Lancet, non-pharmaceutical interventions remain central to managing COVID-19 because there are no licensed vaccines or coronavirus antivirals.
Days earlier, Sri Lankan health experts refuted a piece of disinformation that was shared hundreds of times on Facebook claiming that asafoetida, a plant often used in traditional Indian medicine, can prevent coronavirus infection. They pointed out that there is no evidence to suggest that asafoetida, known locally as perumkaayam, can definitively protect anyone from contracting any specific virus.
Yes, some plant extracts are known to boost our immunity, and these are used as home remedies in many cultures. As there isn’t yet a vaccine or medication against COVID-19, concoctions touted as a cure can easily lull users into a false sense of complacency. That, in turn, can undermine disease control efforts.
So far Sri Lanka has had only one confirmed case of COVID-19: a Chinese tourist who has since fully recovered. The country continues its surveillance and preventive measures.
It is important to note a distinction here: Disinformation is when a falsehood is intentionally disseminated, and misinformation is when it is uncritically or unwittingly shared.
In the context of the current public health emergency, misinformation can hinder disease control and containment, with life-threatening consequences, the WHO’s chief warned recently.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the global health body, wrote in a recent op-ed: “This ‘infodemic’ is hindering efforts to contain the outbreak, spreading unnecessary panic and confusion, and driving division, when solidarity and collaboration are key to saving lives and ending the health crisis.”
He also called for a wider strategy to debunk pseudoscience and strengthen trust in everything from vaccination to public institutions, noting that “Misinformation thrives where trust in the authorities is weak.”
Information disorder, as the broader phenomenon is now being called, is not limited to social media. Some newspapers, as well as radio and TV stations, are equally guilty of polluting their audiences’ minds. Climate denialism is perhaps the most visible among many examples.
Countering it requires concerted efforts by governments, academia, civil society and all others keen to sustain evidence-based public discourse and action.
The WHO has set a good example by using its website and social media to debunk health myths and clarify the science of infection prevention.
Conspiracy theorists and fraudsters will always take undue advantage of freedom of expression. The challenge to open societies is not censorship, but to ensure a steady supply and effective dissemination of credible information.
In the long term, enhancing scientific literacy and media literacy is the only antidote to our minds being “infected” by disinformation.
Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based writer who has covered science, environment and public health issues for nearly three decades. He tweets from @NalakaG.
Banner image of a pangolin from a southwestern forest in Sri Lanka, courtesy of Priyan Perera.