Fakes about COVID-19. Who needs them and what for?

At a mobile COVID-19 testing point in Vilnius. @ Žygimantas Gedvila 15min.lt

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has caused a wave of dubious messages. The WHO is trying in every possible way to resist such rumours. Experts believe that the process of generating rumours is a typical human reaction to disasters. The coronavirus (and the pandemic itself and the measures to combat it) has put people under stress. And rumours, fakes and all kinds of “popular advice” often become a way for society to help itself.

The pages of the “Knife” portal talk about an interesting research conducted by folklorists in order to study how fakes arise and what they are for.

Rumours allow society to voice its fears

Due to this alone, they reduce the level of anxiety and help adapt to new realities. Very often, rumours name the “real culprit” of what is happening and some simple means of dealing with trouble – this allows people to calm down and focus all their negativity or all their hopes at one point. Several years ago, scientists experimentally confirmed a direct relationship between, on the one hand, stress and a feeling of loss of control, and on the other hand, belief in rumours and the willingness to spread them. It turns out that by perceiving and transmitting a rumour or a simple recipe that supposedly allows us not to get sick, we regain a sense of control over the situation, even if it is illusory.

And since from the very beginning of the pandemic, no one understood how to escape and how to be treated, it is natural that “folk” medicines and pseudo-medical advice have become one of the most popular fakes about COVID-19. Moreover, according to epidemiologists, it is this type of fakes that is the most dangerous. The point is that pseudo-medical advice prevents the dissemination of real health information and instils a false sense of security in people. As a result, the risk of infection is especially high among those who believe such information. This is confirmed by experiments: in 2019, British epidemiologists built a mathematical model that reflects the “infection” of people with pseudo-medical advice on the principle of the spread of infections.

The model showed that medical fakes increase the risk of real infection with infectious diseases by 40%.

An example is the “folk” diagnostic recipes that were popular at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic (February-April 2020), when there was a particularly acute shortage of tests for infection.

For example, the so-called breath test for the presence of coronavirus was widespread: supposedly you are healthy if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without discomfort. What happens when a person diagnoses the absence of coronavirus in this way for free? Anxiety decreases – and this seems to make it feel good. However, at the same time, real risks also increase: it is not known how many people who passed such a test did not go to the doctor in time and infected others.

 Where do false medical beliefs come from?

Most of us do not understand what modern drugs are made of and how they are made, what the principles of their action are based on, and how we can judge their effectiveness. We randomly believe in the miraculous nature of some drugs and do not trust others – and this is more caused by our emotions than rational arguments. In addition, the promoted prevention methods – masks, hand washing, social distance, quarantine – on the one hand, seem frivolous, and on the other, they cause inconvenience. There are even people who perceive such measures as humiliating and hostile to what evidence-based medicine is trying to convey to us.

The aforementioned British epidemiologists and mathematical modelers have found that people turn a deaf ear to official medical information and follow pseudo-medical advice if they get it from someone they know.

The authority of the advisor

Parents, friends, acquaintances can be an advisor. With social networks, the situation is more complicated: we understand that we are receiving information from an unknown author. Very often, fake authors refer to medical organizations. If they remember the name of some real institution, they use it, and if not, they themselves invent something solid (for example, “Beijing Military Hospital”). Foreign authorities look especially convincing – for example, “Japanese doctors” who advised dissolving coronavirus in gastric juice, or “Israeli doctors” who prescribed drinking a solution of soda with lemon. In medical fakes, the WHO may be suspected of creating the virus and / or insidious plans for vaccination. Moreover, in Chinese, American and South Korean medical fakes, real-life medical institutions were often mentioned, which later had to refute all this.

So what do you do about the spread of rumours?

Learn critical thinking skills. The findings of studies conducted by Swedish and Canadian-American scientists show that if people are able to independently analyse information, then the spread of fakes stops.

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