Why the World Health Organisation is calling Coronavirus an "infodemic"

In the face of global panic, the WHO wants to battle misinformation. But that won't be enough

March 04, 2020
An Emergency Department Nurse during a demonstration of the Coronavirus pod and COVID-19 virus testing procedures set-up beside the Emergency Department of Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. PA Photo. Picture date: Wednesday March 4, 202
An Emergency Department Nurse during a demonstration of the Coronavirus pod and COVID-19 virus testing procedures set-up beside the Emergency Department of Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. PA Photo. Picture date: Wednesday March 4, 202

In Italy there’s a supermarket punch-up as shoppers fight over the last packet of pasta. In Hong Kong, two men are arrested for a “toilet paper heist” (yes, really), stealing 600 rolls of toilet paper that were left outside a supermarket. While the World Health Organisation deliberates whether or not the Covid-19 epidemic warrants the status pandemic, there’s no doubting that panic has gone global. From Seoul to Jakarta, Singapore to Milan, people are spooked.

This kind of consumerist panic—the stripped-shelf, stockpiling variety—has a familiar repertoire: long queues, flared tempers, occasional stampedes, and sporadic acts of violence with twists of dark humor, like the loo roll heist. All of this is apparently fuelled by the spectre of quarantine and imminent lockdown. Anonymous video-clips—real or staged, it’s hard to tell—from the viral frontline in Wuhan, China, don’t help. Viewed through a Twitter feed, it could be the zombie pandemic in World War Z, though that begins in Chongqing. If apocalypse can happen there, why not here?

Aside from the supermarket run on food, face masks and sanitisers, there’s another species of discriminatory panic, which the sociologist Stanley Cohen calls "moral panic," in which the spread of disease is blamed on others. In a panic situation, Cohen writes, “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” In China, these “folk devils” are people from the province of Hubei, the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, who are now shunned by others in the country as potential carriers. Elsewhere, individuals of Chinese descent have reportedly been targeted. Assumptions about race and culture play into this toxic mix. Disease is viewed as the consequence of deviant behaviours, practices and predilections. Videos of Chinese diners sitting down with a hearty appetite to some exotic repast reinforce prejudicial convictions that every disease has its wicked superspreader. Covid-19 is no exception.

And finally, there’s market panic. Covid-19 has sent stock markets tumbling. Last week the Dow Jones suffered its biggest single-day slump on record. The prospect of a dramatic slowdown in Chinese manufacturing and the knock-on effect on global supply chains is stoking fears of total meltdown, as are the dire warnings issued by financial institutions that Covid-19 stands to wipe out corporate profit growth.

How do these different panics interconnect? What drives them, and how can they be managed? Indeed, can they be managed, or are we dealing with a deep, dark human instinct that will never be subdued?

At the Munich Security Conference last month, World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared, “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” The WHO defines an infodemic as a situation where there is "an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."

In an infodemic, the engine of panic is social media. The online world can all too easily flip into a vast misinformation machine. People are no longer able to tell fiction from truth. Everything is fake news if you don’t like it. Hush-hush conspiracies get blown up into soccer-stadium chants that drown out pure reason.

The detrimental effects of this mass infodemic are now routinely enumerated in the mainstream media and the medical press, along with a prescription for counter measures. To fight against falsehoods, these solutions contend, we need to disseminate accurate information backed by trustworthy research. We need to create certainty with verified information.

But there’s a problem with attributing panic simply to misinformation. For one, it ignores a far deeper issue, which is trust. Put bluntly, many people no longer have trust in the institutions that purport to arbitrate between falsehood and truth, misinformation and information. Globally, there’s an alarming trust deficit when it comes to governments and international agencies. This is a real cause for concern because trust is what underwrites our contracts with authority. It forms the basis of governance. Without it, there is, well, panic.

Second, the infodemic theory of panic fails to recognise that verified information isn’t easy to define. The science of the SARS-CoV-2, the official moniker for the virus, is unfolding. There’s still considerable uncertainty over the disease’s incidence rate and diffusion, as well as the risks it poses. How does uncertain knowledge get communicated in a crisis?

There’s no doubt that digital technology today is playing a profound role in how we respond to the world, and to crises in particular. In the nineteenth century, the telegraph had a similar transformative effect, making the distant proximate and producing new social worlds. Today, in the era of social media, public health messaging has more platforms to use but also new communication challenges to overcome.

But reducing panic’s many faces to the problem of an infodemic, and implicitly to the gullibility of a consuming public, is ultimately unhelpful. There are bigger questions that the infodemic debate obscures. Not only about how we grapple with a phenomenon as disparate as panic that manifests across such vastly different scales—from a supermarket brawl to the swings of the global market—but also about why it is that everywhere trust in institutions of governance is eroding as fast as panic takes hold.