We are dealing with two contagions: the spread of microbes and the spread of rumours
Dr Muiris Houston: The power of fear may be an even greater threat than Covid-2019
Clearly you don’t need a compromised immune system when there’s a viral pandemic in the offing. Photograph: iStock
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” – WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, February 2020.
From the outset of the novel coronavirus epidemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been aware it was dealing with two contagions: one the physical spread of the microbe; and the other the spread of rumours and misinformation about the outbreak. It faces the challenge of sounding the appropriate level of alarm, without fanning the flames of hysteria.
The director-general is forthright: “At WHO, we’re not just battling the virus; we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response,” he says.
The power of fear may be a greater threat than Covid-2019. Mass hysteria can take hold as a primal fear of the unknown grips society. It can make us racist, selfish and irrational. As humans evolved, we developed a “negativity bias” in which information about potential dangers and threats is magnified, is easier to remember, and easier to share. Cultural epidemiologists describe danger cues as having “high learnability, memorability, and teachability”.
We know that fear and worry suppress the immune system by flooding us with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
From an evolutionary perspective we have learned to overinterpret rather than underinterpret danger. In cases of physical danger, these instant reactions (the fight or flight response) work well. But in a more connected and multilayered world not so much.
Evidence is emerging that health misinformation we encounter online can motivate decisions and behaviours that actually make us more susceptible to disease. Hence the importance of the WHO fighting back. It’s risk communications and “infodemic” management teams actively track misinformation.
The infodemic team counters rumours by publishing “myth busters” and live Q&A interviews with experts. And they are engaging with companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Weibo and Pinterest asking them to filter out false information and promote accurate information from credible sources. “To fight the flood of misinformation, we are building a band of truth-tellers that disperse fact and debunk myths,” the organisation says.
Combatting fake health news is important. There is more false health news out there than there is in any other category. Social media is made for false health news. More than 60 per cent of adults source their news online. The Rand Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research organisation, says a combination of the 24-hour news cycle and social media was one of the principal drivers of what it calls “truth decay”.
Meanwhile, what can we do to protect ourselves from the current coronavirus infodemic? We know that fear and worry suppress the immune system by flooding us with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. From slowing wound healing to diminishing the protective effects of vaccines to increasing our susceptibility to infection, stress has been described as the ultimate immune-modulator.
Clearly you don’t need a compromised immune system with a viral pandemic in the offing. So what practical steps will help? Sleep is important – it’s when your immune system repairs itself – so try to get a full seven to eight hours sleep each night. Now is also the time to eat properly. Studies have shown that eating nutrient-rich diets, high in fruits and vegetables, has a direct impact on our body’s immune response and can help protect against disease. Laughter is also an immune-system booster.
Practising sensible infection control methods and taking care of your overall well-being are valuable, natural methods for boosting immunity.
Here are some practical ideas to consider:
– Watch a favourite comedy programme instead of a news bulletin.
– Strike a balance between overcleaning and washing your hands thoroughly before eating and after visiting the toilet.
– Manage your exposure to anxiety-inducing coronavirus rumours. Walk away from conversations about viral threats that make you feel uncomfortable.
– Exercise regularly even if social distancing measures are put in place.