Misinformation in a Time of Pandemic


Information is power, particularly in a time of pandemic. People make decisions based on the information they're given and that information can either promote their health or be potentially harmful. 

"The purpose of health education and health promotion is to empower people so that they have the tools they need to access the care they need," said Carol Cummings, chair of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Rhode Island College

A recent discussion with Cummings and two department faculty – Assistant Professor Soumyadeep Mukherjee and Assistant Professor Elizabeth England-Kennedy – centered around COVID-19 and the importance of accessing credible sources for information on the virus.

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From left, Associate Professor Carol Cummings, Assistant Professor Soumyadeep Mukherjee and Assistant Professor Elizabeth England-Kennedy

Mukherjee, an epidemiologist, first praised the public health messaging coming from R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo and Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health.

"In Rhode Island, we've been incredibly lucky that the administration set an unequivocal tone from the very beginning that COVID-19 is a matter of grave concern," he said. "[In the governor's daily press briefings] we are given updates that are very informative and very helpful. Of course, we are part of a nation, so we are also receiving a lot of mixed messages. We heard, for instance, that the virus was no more serious than the seasonal flu."

"If 100 people are infected with COVID-19, approximately two to four people will die from it," Mukherjee said. "Yet fewer than one in 1,000 will die from the flu, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That indicates the seriousness of COVID-19."

England-Kennedy, an anthropologist, drew parallels between COVID-19 and the 1918 influenza (often called the Spanish Influenza), another pandemic shrouded with mixed messages and misinformation.

First, the name Spanish Influenza is a misnomer, she said. The first cases of the flu didn't originate in Spain but in Kansas and it was spread by the movement of troops during World War I. The pathogen ended up infecting one-third of the world population. 

"More people died of influenza than they did in the war," said England-Kennedy. "But countries tried to cover up the number of deaths because they didn't want to lower morale and harm the war effort. Only Spain, who was neutral, published accurate epidemiological information. As a result, the pandemic became known as the Spanish Influenza. This is why we no longer use place names when naming a pandemic – to avoid scapegoating. The coronavirus was named COVID-19 to locate it in its proper virus family and its year of origin."

Unproven theories about how to treat the 1918 influenza circulated as well. The dangerous antimalarial drug quinine was promoted in 1918; similarly, the equally unproven and dangerous antimalarial drug chloroquine is being propounded for today's virus.

Miracle cures are also making the circuit. A televangelist claimed he could rid his followers of the coronavirus if they would just touch the TV screen while he prayed for them. In another telecast, the same preacher "summoned the wind of God" and blew at the TV camera, blowing the virus away.

People are grasping for information, but where they access it is important, said Cummings. Often people selectively seek out sources that confirm what they already believe, she said, and put their trust in a community of believers who share their beliefs.

"This pandemic shows us how important it is to have reliable public health information," she said. "At RIC, we've built our undergraduate and graduate programs to prepare professionals to deliver health education and health promotion in ways that empower people both during a pandemic and certainly after one."

Graduates of the program go on to become health educators, health promotion specialists, research assistants, patient advocates and outreach workers. Through advanced studies and experience, they can move to positions of public health officer, epidemiologist, infection control preventionist, global health specialist and much more. Graduates go on to do what they've been taught – disseminate evidence-based information.

Recently, Cummings put together a COVID-19 resource list that provides links to trusted public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Society for Public Health Education, with links in multiple languages and resources for families and children.

The resource list can be found by clicking here. 

Ultimately, it's important to always consider the source of what you hear, because, in the words of Kenneth Eade, "The truth is worth pursuing at any distance."