It is not surprising that we are in Covid-19’s sixth wave. That’s what occurs when the public psyche is based on political emotions rather than the best available data. Or when the vast public is comfortable with misleading data. As political sentiments shifted toward a “new normal”, public health precautions were disregarded. We claimed that Covid-19 was “no longer a threat”.
Being a country of social media, we became resistant to the inconveniences of expert advice. We found on Twitter and Facebook “a public health security”...and a “cure” but one that’s worse than the disease. We rejected scientific truth and conflated misinformation with information. The filter-free broadcasting of former about the virus and vaccines propagated a volume of noise in which even the consensus of our experts was invited to drown. Every radical voice found the echo chamber for massive reverberation. Every opinion, amplified by #KOT, assumed the status of an expert opinion and the character of truth, faking parity in reporting.
Meanwhile, the virus spread, marked by spontaneously high incidence and hospitalisations. We disregarded experts’ warnings about the impending emergence of a variant that was significantly more contagious. It was akin to a “public show” of stopping an antibiotic treatment at the first indication of symptom relief, we engaged in a flashy public show.
I have a friend who firmly believes in the conspiracies promoted by an anti-vaccination movement that started sowing nebulous narratives against the Covid-19 vaccine development as early as 2019. I also encountered someone who had invested emotionally in a now-deleted viral YouTube video that falsely claimed that Covid-19 vaccines will “kill millions”. A pastor also sensationally asserted to me recently that a 2015 PhD thesis entitled “A Critical Analysis of the Australian Government’s Rationale for Its Vaccine Policy”, which stoked ire against the WHO vaccination recommendations, was accurate.
Threat to public health
This isn’t the first time the internet has threatened public health, however. For decades, many have alleged that the HIV epidemic was a US government “project” and that the Centers for Disease Control was complicit in it. Folks on the internet—and a popular church—regard immunisation not as one of the greatest advances in public health or relief of immeasurable misery but the cause of autism.
Numerous examples illustrate what happens when the general public consumes the exaggerated claims offered online. The Arab Spring rode on democratisation of information but was swiftly followed by the tyranny of winter, aided by misinformation spread to sow division and radicalisation. The Brexit surprise. The election of Donald Trump. Even the restive flood waters that soil our politics.
Although it gives a temporary security and tranquillity, misinformation diminishes public health’s resolve and reduces a nation’s intellectual rigour. A system of science literacy and education centred on growing frontal circuitry to support the process of reasoning is necessary for achieving a healthy democracy. The practice of medicine is at the centre of issues and conflicts pertaining to health and the truth. When science wins, everybody wins.
Mr Onyango, a life scientist, is a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected].