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Jakarta Post

We can all help fight fake news and hysteria over COVID-19

  • Maria Cellina Wijaya


Surabaya   /   Fri, March 6, 2020   /   09:35 am
We can all help fight fake news and hysteria over COVID-19 In good hands: A Jakarta MRT passenger takes hand sanitizer at Bundaran HI Station in Central Jakarta. The commuter line operator is providing the gel at 13 stations across the city to curb the risk of novel coronavirus transmission. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

As a health professional, it bothers me how much false information and fake news is spread nowadays through social media (especially blue-ticked accounts) about COVID-19. Even my own parents have been consumed by the barrage of hoaxes and misleading broadcasts.

The coronavirus is actually a whole family of viruses. It includes the coronavirus that causes our everyday common cold, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). So, it is a family of viruses that has been known for a very long time; the latest one is, therefore, the novel or new coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, the website run by a team of researchers on demography and epidemiology with real-time data updates and sources such as the World Health Organization, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and various government health agencies, shows that 93,186 positive have been reported around the globe, 80,270 of which are in China.

After China, countries with the highest number of cases so far are South Korea, Italy and Iran. Two cases in Indonesia were positive as of Wednesday.

Closed cases would mean a patient is either discharged or died in treatment. Out of the 93,186 cases, 54,176 are closed. The number of deaths in the closed cases? Only 6 percent (3,203) have died. Of all the patients, 94 percent have recovered and discharged from the hospital.

What does this mean? You can still die from this dangerous virus, but apparently, it is not as deadly as we think.

The wonders of medical advances can still treat COVID-19 patients before any fatal outcome. Education and a bit of trust in modern medicine can help prevent the spread of panic or hysteria.

So, what’s the difference between an epidemic and pandemic? In public health, an epidemic is an event where the number of cases of a disease suddenly rises, affecting multiple members of a community or population of one area or country.

Whereas a pandemic is when an epidemic has spread to other countries or continents.

WHO has refused to call the novel coronavirus a pandemic, mainly because of the grave associations with the term and probably because of the mass hysteria (adding to the panic) it would likely cause.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated on Feb. 24: “Does this virus has pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

An epidemic or pandemic are thus terms to describe how widespread a disease is, not how lethal it can be. Some people have criticized WHO for refusing to declare a pandemic, but obviously, WHO is avoiding unnecessary additional fear if it used terms that most people do not understand but associate with deadly diseases nonetheless.

Further, an epidemic means that measures to contain the disease would focus on a specific area, but a pandemic relates to measures on a global level. Therefore, WHO would need to spread its resources across a much wider area, which would make it harder to get the necessary resources in places that really needed it.

So, the way to not give in to fear is to educate ourselves on what such terms really mean and the real consequences (not the overblown versions) of them.

One piece of widespread information in Indonesian social media is that a herbal treatment for COVID-19 has been found: a potion consisting of ginger, curcumin and other herbal ingredients. Researchers confirm that curcumin can reduce inflammations, but this information has somewhat turned into a herbal cure for COVID-19!

Curcumin certainly can strengthen the immune system. Curcumin supplements have often been prescribed for patients with liver problems or low appetite. But there has not been any published research on curcumin’s ability to treat COVID-19, let alone as a cure.

So what should we do? COVID-19 is transmitted by droplets, tiny particles that come out of your body when you sneeze or cough. A disease categorized as one transmitted by droplets means it is spread through these tiny particles that land in open, vulnerable body parts: the eyes, mouth, nose and throat.

We must differentiate droplet transmission from airborne transmission. Droplets only travel as far as 1 meter from the source and don’t remain in the very long air afterward. Whereas airborne transmissions are when the particles are even smaller than droplets and remain in the air for a longer period while traveling further than a droplet particle.

Airborne diseases can infect a person through inhalation. Examples of diseases with known airborne transmissions are tuberculosis, measles and chicken pox.

WHO stated that no airborne spread of the coronavirus has been reported, and “it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence”. So, it is no use to wear masks such as respirator masks or N95 masks if you are completely healthy. The virus is not airborne!

Our country has been one of the many suffering from the effects of panic-buying and people stockpiling masks. Masks are sold out everywhere and as a consequence, prices are driven up to high levels.

Only sick people need to wear masks. People with a cold or cough need to wear masks to protect others from droplets when they cough or sneeze. This is the correct use of masks.

Another thing we have been hearing a lot is to always wash our hands. Why? It’s simply because droplets that fall out a person’s mouth can land on any surface: tables, door handles, you name it.

So, droplets might not enter our mouth, nose or eyes directly but through our hands. That’s why we should always wash our hands, especially before touching any of our “open and vulnerable” body parts. Tutorials on washing hands properly are on YouTube, posters and social media.

Indonesians do have the ability to fight fake information. With the correct education and the right attitude, we can help not just our country but the world in fighting the spread of COVID-19.


Graduate of School of Medicine, Airlangga University, who is on a government-mandated one-year internship for physicians in Mojokerto, East Java.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.