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How to play your part in the battle against COVID-19 hoaxes, misinformation

Rsi Suwardana
Rsi Suwardana

General practitioner

Denpasar, Bali  /  Wed, March 4, 2020  /  06:47 pm
How to play your part in the battle against COVID-19 hoaxes, misinformation

A member of the Presidential Security Detail (Paspampres) checks a visitor's body temperature at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on Tuesday. Body temperature checks are carried out for all guests, including ministers and heads of state institutions, who enter the palace to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

By Rsi Suwardana

We might be powerless to stop, or even halt, this current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

First, most of us are not health professionals trained to face this kind of outbreak in the first place. Second, most of us are also not scientists, nor do we hold significant positions in the local, regional or national health agencies responsible for managing this outbreak. Third, obviously we cannot halt something that has not yet arrived in our community.

On Monday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced the first two confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indonesia. After the announcement, the Health Ministry’s Disease Control and Prevention Directorate General secretary, Achmad Yurianto, said more tests would be carried out to prevent the spread of the virus.

Previously, skepticism was high after the Health Ministry insisted that no cases had been recorded in the country. In response to a much-cited Harvard study that argued it was impossible that Indonesia did not have any cases of coronavirus infection, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto described the study as “insulting”. The insistence that there were no cases continued, even as several foreigners tested positive after visiting Indonesia.

Terawan and his staff should start taking public discussions more seriously. As the leader of our country in the battle against COVID-19, the minister must learn how to speak to the public and the press.

One of the biggest blunders was when Achmad Yurianto incorrectly explained the difference between COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is the official term the World Health Organization (WHO) has given to name this outbreak. Meanwhile, SARS-CoV-2 is the proposed name for the virus that caused the outbreak. Despite the blunder, Yurianto was later appointed as spokesperson for COVID-19-related matters in Indonesia.

We might be questioning the Health Ministry’s preparedness, but remember, we should not play the role of the powerless. As a privileged population — with access to higher education and abundant information from the internet — we need to enlighten ourselves and our community, and not seek to discredit the Health Ministry with rumors and false information.

For example, part of the health minister’s explanation regarding the sky-rocketing prices of face masks was correct. He said prices were rising because of our mistake and advised us to only use masks if we were coughing or sneezing. But unfortunately, he delivered his message in his usual nonchalant style, and the media emphasized the phrase, “It’s your fault you bought the masks”, in their headlines.

Yes, it is our fault. We were fooled by the false information that we needed to wear face masks everywhere were went, even if we were healthy. The WHO recommends that masks be worn when taking care of suspected COVID-19 carriers, or when we exhibit symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection, such as coughing or sneezing.

The high demand for masks has decreased their stocks and in turn increased their price. This shortage has also been felt by health professionals and has impacted the budgets of health facilities, especially small-scale clinics. It has in fact harmed our efforts to prepare for an outbreak. This is before even mentioning the illegal production of masks that do not meet the Health Ministry's standards. So please, use masks according to the WHO's recommendations.

Another point I want to raise is please refrain from spreading posts or statuses from unverified social media accounts. If you are confused about anything concerning COVID-19, such as the safety of packages from China, the effectiveness of certain medications to prevent or treat COVID-19, or whether pets like dogs or cats can transmit the virus, please search for the answers from the homepages or social media accounts of trusted health organizations. At the moment, I only recommend the WHO website and its verified social media accounts.

Please also be more careful when you interpret news reports, as not all journalists and writers have expertise in health-related topics. For example, let’s look back on the mistake made by one of the Health Ministry’s staff members when addressing the difference between COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2. Yurianto should have understood the terms, but the media should have also elaborated, instead of only providing fragments of information.

SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but the virus is unrelated to the previous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that occurred in 2002. The SARS outbreak was caused by another coronavirus strain, officially named SARS-CoVs. If we encounter a new respiratory-related outbreak caused by coronavirus in the future, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) might call the virus SARS-CoV-3.

Many conspiracy theories are circulating on social media about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. One of them states that this virus was deliberately created as a biological weapon. The term “SARS” in SARS-CoV-2 might falsely be used to feed this conspiracy theory, as the public might think this virus was modified from the previous SARS virus.

In fact, many scientists around the world firmly state that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is of natural origin, and is unlikely to have been produced in a laboratory. The similarity in the names SARS-CoVs and SARS-CoV-2 is only a matter of nomenclature, and has nothing to do with their origin, just as the Hepatitis A virus is not the direct ancestor of the Hepatitis B, C, D and E viruses.

As a general practitioner, I usually refrain from using the formal SARS-CoV-2 name. Instead, I refer to it only as the “new coronavirus”. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to downplay the severity of the current outbreak, as the number of cases and deaths is far higher than the previous SARS outbreaks.

In my personal opinion, it is more important to educate patients and the public about how to their wash hands and use face masks correctly than it is to tell them the formal name of SARS-CoV-2. But if they ask about SARS-CoV-2, I explain to them clearly without trying to evoke anxiety and advise them to take appropriate preventive measurements.

As powerless as you and I might be to tackle this outbreak, we can still contribute by monitoring and criticizing our Health Ministry, to ensure it behaves transparently and takes the necessary approaches to prevent this outbreak from damaging our community. We can also prevent the spread of false information from ravaging our social media environment.

With a vaccine still several months away, there is no more effective mantra to prepare for an outbreak than transparency and collaboration, supported by a healthy social media environment. (kes)

***

Rsi Suwardana works as a general practitioner. Reach him at Twitter @Rsi_Suwardana.

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If you want to help in the fight against COVID-19, we have compiled an up-to-date list of community initiatives designed to aid medical workers and low-income people in this article. Link: [UPDATED] Anti-COVID-19 initiatives: Helping Indonesia fight the outbreak
 

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