Careless talkMisinformation may generate anxiety and fear.
When Prasiddhi Shrestha was tested for Covid-19, she was the second reported case in Nepal. She has since been discharged from hospital after a complete recovery but had to face a dual tragedy. While she fought the disease, strangers began hurling hate speeches at her on the internet. The hostility went as far as her having to receive death threats. Shrestha had to bear not only physical illness, but the less-visible stigma that came with it despite not being guilty of anything.
Shrestha, an undergrad student in Paris, had returned home after her college announced that it was moving classes online due to the Covid-19 outbreak. She had no symptoms whatsoever. But when her friend tested positive for the coronavirus, she decided to take the test too. She was also found positive. But Shrestha was in self-quarantine, and had taken all the measures to make sure it would not spread to others. But for the larger public, waiting on to jump on speculations and spewing hate, these measures did not suffice.
Research has often shown that people tend to harbour negative attitudes towards people with illness. HIV/AIDS often tops that list wherein the survivors routinely experience discrimination and stigmatisation. But as is evident right now, even those with seemingly lesser conditions can experience stigma.
Needless to say, these are uncertain times as no one knows for sure when the world will be returning to normalcy. Everything is characterised by fear and risk. Given that, it becomes even more imperative for the media and other avenues of knowledge production to spread information correctly as well as display sensitivity. But the media cannot do this alone. It needs the support of the government. Lack of information and misinformation during a pandemic, or a crisis situation in other words, is dangerous to say the least. It is this very gap that could further lead to people’s stigmatisation as well as victimisation.
Instead of listening to experts from the respective fields, which in this case are doctors and other frontline workers, the government seems to be relying on some mysterious sources whose conclusions are unscientific. For example, Prime Minister KP Oli was seen lecturing in a video that washing hands with hot water and donning masks along with specs the whole time will prevent one from catching the coronavirus. Regrettably, all his claims are ill founded and do more harm than good in the fight against Covid-19. The viral video is replete with misinformation. Its danger is that such misinformation will naturally generate anxiety and fear among the population who take their chosen leader’s words at face value. And this chain of anxiety and fear will in return create stigma. Needless to say, discrimination, fear and misinformation spread as fast as the pandemic itself.
Shrestha came out stronger from the stigmatisation, but not everybody might possess a similar will. Therefore, it is the government who needs to be at the forefront of providing accurate information so that the population is well informed. But for that, the authorities must double-check the facts themselves before opening their mouths. In such a time of crisis we need to fight not only the disease but also stigmatisation and misinformation, as both can be deadlier than the disease itself.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of June 2, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 213 countries and infected more than 6,321,836 people with 375,657 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 198,140 with 5,608 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 72,460 confirmed cases with 1,543 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 1,811 cases with eight deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.