Let the experts do the talking

We have to stop flooding the Internet with a deluge of fake information, which – in its totality – only has the effect of hindering and undermining all the good work currently being done by Malta’s health professionals

Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci
Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci

On Friday morning, I called my news editor and asked him to take down the link to an article I wrote two weeks ago, under the headline: ‘Yes, there’s a dangerous virus going around. It’s called social media’ (published on 26 February).

Not, mind you, because of anything that can be inferred just from that headline. Actually, the events of this week have demonstrated precisely how dangerous the free-flow of (mostly false) online information can really be… but more of that later.

No, the problem was that the rest of the article contained misinformation regarding the nature and severity of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It wasn’t intentional, I hasten to add. In my defence, I based my assessment on information coming out from local and international health authorities at the time: all of which were basically suggesting that ‘there was no cause for alarm’.

And I still think that advice holds good for today’s scenario: even though it has changed beyond recognition in the last two weeks. For I have never heard of any form of crisis – no matter how serious – that has ever been even remotely helped by panic and mass-hysteria.

Indeed, it is not for nothing that the very first words of Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (note: the actual guide itself, not the novel) were: ‘Don’t Panic!’. There is, after all, a certain universal applicability to that maxim: it doesn’t matter what the crisis is, or where it’s happening across the entire Universe…. at all times, and in all circumstances, ‘Don’t Panic’ is always bound to be very solid advice.

But with hindsight, I also realise that excessive calm can be just as unhelpful as excessive anxiety; and sometimes for the same reason, too.

Just as a sudden congregation of panic-shoppers at Lidl can help spread this highly contagious virus… so, too, can all the everyday actions of people who simply feel they have nothing to worry about at all; and therefore go about their daily business as usual, in blissful ignorance of the fact that they may be functioning as walking, talking spreaders of a potentially fatal disease.

In any case: I regret that I may have contributed to this false sense of security myself, in spreading what I considered to be reliable information at the time. So allow me to correct some of the mistakes in that article.

I was wrong, for instance, to suggest that the new virus is no deadlier than the seasonal influenza we experience each year; and I feel it is important to explain exactly why, too.

It’s not so much because of the death-toll: for ordinary influenza does kill more people than even the worst-case predictions associated with COVID-19 (or at least, the credible ones coming from authoritative sources).

But with hindsight, I realise that it is highly misleading to compare the different mortality rates. One crucial difference is that – unlike COVID-19 – the influenza epidemics we experience each year do not translate into a drastic increase in the number of people needing urgent hospitalisation, all at the same time. Our health services are generally well-equipped to deal with a virus that we have, after all, grown accustomed to over the millennia. So influenza kills people, yes… but at a rate which can easily be absorbed by the system.

But as we are now seeing in other countries… the same cannot be said for a new virus that developed just last December, and which has already spread to 124 countries across the world.

Perhaps the scariest news coming out of Italy right now has, in fact, less to do with COVID-19’s individual mortality and contagion rate, than with its devastating consequences on Italy’s healthcare system across the board. Patients requiring intensive treatment for other life-threatening conditions – including cancer – are often being denied access to hospitals, in a bid to free up medical resources to handle the coronavirus crisis.

This means that even people who have not contracted COVID-19 may end up dying as a direct result of its spread; and their numbers will also have to be added to the final death-toll, when it comes to doing the sums later.

There are, of course, other ways in which the two illnesses differ… but from this point on, I’ll leave it to the experts to explain the medical details. Suffice it to say, for now, that – contrary to any impression I, or others, may have given in the recent past – we are, in fact, dealing with a very different (and far more dangerous) animal.

Does this mean I was also wrong to warn against panic and mass-hysteria? No, certainly not. If anything, the very acknowledgement of a crisis situation demands that we should all adopt a responsible, level-headed approach: especially now, when Malta is bracing itself for a seemingly unavoidable spike in cases.

For the situation that is currently unfolding in Italy has not quite materialised here yet. And while it may be too early to determine whether or not it is entirely avoidable… there is, I feel, a lot that we can still do to successfully avert further precipitation of the crisis.

But this is precisely why now, more than ever, we need to be more mindful about the free flow of misinformation (which, alas, I have been guilty of myself).

To give but one example out of many: last Thursday, a local online news portal claimed that health authorities were aware of ‘30+’ new, unreported cases of COVID-19 in Malta…. and as tends to be the case with online sensationalism, this ‘news’ immediately spread faster than the pandemic itself.

To me, this is as good an example as any of why misinformation can be so very dangerous. For if the numbers in that report were indeed correct, it would signify a threefold increase in COVID-19 cases in just one day… in other words, more than double the current contagion rate in Italy: which is by far the hardest-hit country in Europe.

Even then, the spike would have occurred just five days (i.e, the minimum incubation period) after the first reported case, on Saturday 7 March. So the implied threefold contagion rate would be expected to increase dramatically over time, as some cases can develop anywhere up to 14 days later.

As such, any attempt to extrapolate future scenarios from that news report would paint a positively Apocalyptic picture for Malta: suggesting that any further attempt to slow the spread of contagion today would be more or less futile. We would have already surpassed the stage Italy is at right now: despite the fact that Malta took its precautions early, whereas Italy did not (at least, not at the initial stages). 

In any case: thankfully, that report turned out to be false. There were, in fact, only three new cases detected that day; and all contracted overseas.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other cases we don’t know about yet; or that the virus isn’t being transmitted, from carrier to carrier, here in Malta as we speak. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the number of cases is not set to increase exponentially in future.

The local health authorities are, in fact, expecting to encounter locally transmitted cases in the coming days. So – even at the risk of sounding alarmist myself – yes, those ‘30+’ cases, and more, will certainly come.

But exactly when, in what circumstances, and over what specific timeframe… these are factors that make a critical difference: if nothing else, because our ability to contain this epidemic depends entirely on the accuracy of the information upon which decisions are based.

And this is where the responsibility of reporting comes in – not just by the mainstream media, but also by everyone out there who posts and shares information online.  ‘Panic reports’ like this one do not merely increase anxiety across the board - arguably contributing to the latest wave of panic-shopping, which also exposed more people to the risk of infection – but they also muddy the waters for Malta’s policy-makers… who, being equally human, are just as liable to panic as everybody else.

The same, of course, is true for equally inaccurate information that paints a misleadingly reassuring picture of the situation. It could lead us to lower our guard at the country’s most critical stage… which, at the end of the day, could prove just as unhelpful as everybody just running to the hills in blind panic.

The bottom line is that, if we really want to overcome this crisis with the minimal loss possible… we may have to do more than just self-quarantine, and wash our hands as often as possible. We also have to stop flooding the Internet with a deluge of fake information, which – in its totality – only has the effect of hindering and undermining all the good work currently being done by Malta’s health professionals, to keep us all safe.

And on that note, may I take the opportunity of joining everyone else in congratulating them for their bravery and dedication (and in wishing them the heft pay-rise they so richly deserve). Over and out.

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