We’ve all received some message with some miraculous cure for the COVID-19 coronavirus. And we have received it despite the fact that medical specialists around the world, led by the World Health Organization, claim that there is no treatment or vaccine against this disease at the moment.
This phenomenon of misinformation is putting lives at risk, as there are people with symptoms of being sick from the coronavirus who try unproven remedies in the hope of “curing” themselves.
Fear is the breeding ground for misinformation, rumors and false hopes. However, truthful and reliable information can give us a vision of reality in which certain hopes can be born.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is leading efforts to counteract falsehoods and promote facts about the virus.
No area untouched by misinformation
Long before the outbreak of the virus, that organization, also known by its acronym UNESCO, warned about the impact that political, technological, economic and social transformation has had on the way we exchange information in recent years and especially about the contamination caused by some orchestrated disinformation campaigns.
Such campaigns pose a threat to fact-based journalism and, particularly during the current pandemic, to people’s lives.
Guy Berger, director of UNESCO’s Communication and Information Policy and Strategy, and one of the UN agency’s leading experts on misinformation, explains that misrepresentation of all aspects of COVID-19 has become commonplace.
“There seems to be hardly an area that has not been affected by misinformation regarding the COVID-19 crisis, from the origin of the coronavirus, to prevention and unproven ‘cures’, including responses from governments, businesses, celebrities and others.
He added that “at a time of great fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for manufacturing to flourish and grow.
The great risk is that any falsehood that gains strength can cancel out the importance of a set of true facts: “When disinformation is repeated and amplified, even by influential people, there is a serious danger that information based on true facts will end up having a marginal impact”.
The danger of promoting unproven drugs
Because of the magnitude of the problem, the World Health Organization, which is leading the UN response to the health pandemic, has added to its website the section Tips for the Public about the rumors of the new coronavirus. It refutes a staggering array of falsehoods, including claims that drinking strong alcoholic beverages, exposure to high temperatures or, conversely, cold weather can kill the virus.
Berger noted that some people mistakenly believe that young people or people of African descent are immune (some misinformation has a racist or xenophobic tone), or that those who live in hot climates or countries where summer is on the way don’t have to worry too much. The likely consequence of these lies is complacency or false security, which could lead to more premature deaths.
The UNESCO official also pointed to a more damaging example of misinformation: encouraging the taking of drugs, approved for other purposes but not yet clinically proven to be effective against COVID-19.
Providing and demanding the truth
In the face of this, what can be done to ensure that reliable, useful and potentially life-saving information becomes more important? UNESCO’s response, says Berger, is to improve the flow of accurate information and ensure that its demand is met.
“We are stressing that governments, to counteract rumours, should be more transparent and proactively disclose more information, in line with right to information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.
“However, this does not replace information provided by the media, so we are also stepping up our efforts to convince authorities to see free and professional journalism as an ally in the fight against disinformation, especially because the media work openly in the public sphere, while much disinformation is off the radar, in social messaging applications,” the specialist explained.
He also commented that UNESCO especially urges governments “not to impose restrictions on freedom of expression that could damage the essential role of an independent press, but to recognize journalism as a power against disinformation, even when it publishes verified information and documented opinions that upset those in power.
“There is a strong argument that the media deserve to be recognized and supported by governments as an essential service at this time,” he added.
To meet the demand for reliable facts, UNESCO disseminates, through various media and channels, and in partnership with UN agencies such as the World Health Organization, as much reliable information on public health as possible.