Health observers have warned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic of another dangerous outbreak running in parallel: the infodemic. In Bolivia, the infodemic just secured a win. The disturbing development highlights the need to combat misinformation everywhere, including in India.
Bolivia’s new minister of health, Edgar Pozo, endorsed on Sunday a false claim about the medicinal value of consuming bleach chlorine dioxide, also known as “Miracle Mineral Solution.” The minister’s statement during a press conference held Sunday handed a victory to propagators of misinformation in the south American country, who have advocated for the use of the product for much of the crisis.
Late July saw reports of “long lines [forming] every morning…as desperate people wait to buy small bottles of chlorine dioxide” in Cochabamba, one of the cities in Bolivia hit hardest by COVID-19. The Bolivian health ministry at the time disavowed the use of the product. However, there has been a change of government since then and the new governing party appears to have thrown its weight in favour of a practice leading health authorities including the World Health Organization (WHO) have deemed dangerous.
The apparent success of this misinformation campaign is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. The infodemic associated with the global outbreak of COVID-19 carries the potential to cause real harm; it may even cost people their lives if they use unproven, harmful treatments or refuse life-saving ones.
Just this week, the Red Cross warned of misinformation about COVID-19 – in particular, the eventual campaign to vaccinate against the novel coronavirus that causes it. In a virtual briefing, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Francesco Rocca told the UN Correspondents Association that “to beat COVID-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease, and that could undermine our shared ability to vaccinate against it.”
India is no stranger to misinformation about public health issues. As Statista pointed out earlier this year, “multiple surveys and studies in recent years found that an overwhelming majority of people in the country access news primarily through social media where information rarely gets checked for validity and authenticity.” As Health Issues India reported at the time, “this has manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, with India being a large progenitor of fake news about COVID-19 shared on WhatsApp and social media feeds being replete with unverified cures for the novel coronavirus and myths about its origins.
“For public health – especially during a highly contagious and deadly pandemic – the ramifications of fake news are disastrous. And it cannot be denied that misinformation about health and the detriments of the infodemic to public health has roared to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.”