People wearing face masks in Hong Kong queuing up for hours for more masks. Photo: AFP
by Robert Peckham
by Robert Peckham

Covid-19 infodemic: To stem the tide of panic, we need to understand people’s fears, not condemn them

  • Epidemics confront us with existential life-and-death questions that invoke strong emotions. Medical science and public health practitioners should address feelings as a key part of communication and preparedness, rather than dismiss them

As the likelihood of a Covid-19 pandemic increases, there are signs of growing frustration among public health scientists, medical practitioners and health agencies. Weeks into the outbreak, there is still so much that is uncertain about the pathogen and its epidemiology.

And while time may be running out on the biomedical front, the health community has been battling to put out another fire. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, declared at the Munich security conference on February 15, “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
Since then, misinformation about the virus has intensified, churned out of social media sites like there is no tomorrow. Conspiracy theories abound, notably the claim, promoted by, among others, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, that Sars-CoV-2 is not natural, that it is a laboratory concoction, part of a nebulous plan.
Last week, a group of scientists issued a joint statement, declaring: “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins.”
Meanwhile, the WHO has been forced to dismiss a story that the disease could be caught from an infectious cloud – a fantastic proposition strikingly reminiscent of early 19th century belief in the contagious properties of a cholera cloud.
In Ukraine, an enraged crowd attacked buses carrying evacuees from China. A fake email had reportedly been sent by the country’s security service, claiming those on board were infected.
And in California, phoney WHO fliers warn diners to stay clear of Asian-American businesses. Misinformation, driven by fear, has become more than a distraction: it is positively impeding the public health response.

All of this appears to have come as a shock to the world of biomedicine where the ascendancy of reason over superstition is taken for granted. Did science and the technologies it spawned long ago not dispel the primitive world of raw emotions? In early 17th century Milan, plague “anointers” were searched out and tortured for spreading the disease through the application of toxic potions on doorknobs.

Sixty years later, when young women in colonial Massachusetts began to show signs of sickness “beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect” – to quote a widely cited testimony from that time about the Salem witch trials – their condition was similarly attributed to malevolent powers. Those judged culpable were executed for witchcraft.

But in the 18th century, scientific rationalism began to curb old-world misconceptions. At least in the progressive West, darkness gave way to enlightenment. Our modern world of disbelief was born.

Fake news rising along with the number of coronavirus cases

Only evidently it was not. Here we are in 2020 with contagious clouds and a lynch mob. There are problems with the plot line of ascendant reason. Technology was never the vanquisher of misinformation, but rather its mass disseminator. And epidemics, as we ought to know by now, pose not only biological threats but also exert an affective power.

Diseases confront us with existential questions about life and death. Infectious diseases, in particular, trouble the distinctions between self and other. Put bluntly, they force us to face the music. And that is where panic comes in. A word that derives from the ancient Greek god Pan, the half-goat, half-human deity of wild excess and pure emotion. Pan for pandemonium.

There is no doubt we need to counter the spread of misinformation in every way we can. Rumours propagated through digital technology are a hindrance to public health. Misinformation is jeopardising our ability to manage disease, and it is stoking panic and fuelling discrimination.

But we also need to make space for emotions, which have never been a side issue in epidemics. They have been and remain central to the way that epidemics unfold and to the meanings they acquire in the communities they affect, materially and at a distance.

The ongoing Covid-19 outbreak is exposing the extent to which public health is at a loss with how to deal with the role of human emotions in health decision-making and behaviour. While panic is condemned, there is little interest in understanding the fear sparked by disease. It is as if an epidemic can be reduced to a pathological process, one that exists wholly detached from social life – a biological predicament suspended from the world of feeling.

How did the medical sciences and public health come to be so disconnected from the experiential side of sickness? Because the truth is, we feel disease. We feel it not only as pain or discomfort, but also as an existential threat to the self.

It is time we begin to pay more attention to emotions as a key component of health. Not only in the context of health communication, but as an integral component of preparedness. Instead of simply condemning panic, which will beget nothing more than further panic, we need to address the fears from which panic springs.

Robert Peckham is MB Lee Professor in the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong and author of Epidemics in Modern Asia