By Erica Navelgas
In a briefing in early July, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. likened the Omicron variant of COVID-19 to the flu. He said that “it is a little contagious but it does not hit as hard.”1
President Marcos’ statement was wrong and misleading. But then, other influential people all over the world have the same view.
Omicron might be less severe than Delta, but that doesn’t mean that it no longer hits as hard. And Omicron being a “little contagious” is false, for Omicron is highly transmissible and more infectious than the Delta variant of COVID-19. Omicron is better than Delta in evading the immune system. In some places like Hong Kong, Omicron inflicted high mortality and morbidity rates. The Department of Health (DoH) has thus warned the public not to treat COVID-19 like the flu as this may just lead to complacency.
Evidently, the President and others are misinformed about the gravity of Omicron. Which leads us to the urgency of making the dissemination of correct information a key element in the government’s pandemic strategy. Accurate information saves lives. Misinformation and disinformation cost lives.
We cite other examples of how misinformation or disinformation creates serious problems. Early in the pandemic, the misinformation spread that there was a shortage of face masks, alcohol, and food. This led to panic-buying, and the shortage of essential goods became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another instance of misinformation happened during the vaccination roll out, a year into the pandemic. A significant number of Filipinos, at first, were hesitant to be vaccinated. A survey conducted by Octa Research group from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, 2021 showed that 46% of adult Filipinos were unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The lack of information or misinformation explained the vaccine hesitancy. The main reasons for rejecting vaccination were doubts on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and the perception that vaccines are unnecessary to combat COVID-19. Such vaccine hesitancy meant that a large section of the public did not appreciate the use of science and evidence-based interventions.
Amid the pandemic, there were reports of people using Ivermectin against COVID-19 despite the warning of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA’s Advisory No. 2021-0526 states: “Any use of Ivermectin veterinary products for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 should be avoided as the benefits and safety for this purpose has not been established.”
Similarly, some people were abusing the use of Lianhua Qingwen in the belief that it could fight the virus. It is a traditional herbal product that helps remove “heat-toxin invasion of the lungs, including symptoms such as fever, aversion to cold, muscle soreness, stuffy and runny nose.” But the Department of Health and FDA have repeatedly clarified that this product is not registered as COVID-19 medication.
The Lancet Infectious Diseases’ article entitled “The COVID-19 Infodemic” (July 27, 2020) identifies three main aspects of misinformation: financial gain, political gain, and experimental manipulation. It cites the anti-vaccination industry as a notable example, saying, “a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows that wellness and nutritional supplement companies are major backers of, and directly profit from, anti-vaccination campaigns.”
In yet another health issue, disinformation played a role in the passage of a law on the regulation of vape products. The law relaxes the regulation of vape products by transferring the principal role of regulation from FDA to the Department of Trade and Industry and decreasing the minimum age to access vapes or electronic cigarettes from 21 years old to 18.
Sadly, some media establishments were enablers of the spread of false information that the law serves harm reduction. (How can that be when regulation is laxed, when younger people are allowed to use vape, when new flavors attractive to the youth are introduced?)
Some reporters wrote stories that covered only the side of pro-vape advocates who gave misleading views or arguments. One major daily, for example, published an article about a few Filipino doctors who claimed that the vape bill is going to be “the country’s first comprehensive law that will regulate vapor products and provide strict rules on its use to protect minors.”
That is false. Republic Act (RA) 11467 then existed and mandated the FDA to regulate vape products. But the pro-vape bill becoming a law has supplanted the RA 11467 provisions. The new law weakens the FDA’s jurisdiction and regulation when it is the most competent agency to regulate products harmful to health.
Another problem with fake news is that it becomes credible when repeated over time. The occurrence of repeated inaccurate or wrong information is called “illusory truth.”2 To return to the example of the vaping law, the pro-vape propaganda repeats the claim that the law is a pro-health measure, that it is meant for harm reduction. The aim of the propaganda is to let the false claim stick, so it would eventually sound like the truth.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned, “we’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” The United Nations (UN) even identified fake news related to COVID-19 as a “global enemy.”3 A massive amount of information (infodemic), of which a big part is false or inaccurate, can be likened to a disease outbreak.
The use of technology and the introduction of social media and online platforms that people rely on for information amplify the spread of the infodemic disease. In just a click, the news can go fast, far, and wide like a virus.
How then can we deal with the infodemic? A MIT Sloan Management Review article titled “The Cognitive Shortcut that clouds Decision-Making” recommends four strategies:
• “Avoid the bias blind spot… where people believe that biases cloud other people’s actions but not their own. Recent research shows that people high in intelligence or with superior analytical skills are just as prone to the illusory truth effect as everyone else.”
• “Avoid epistemic bubbles where members encounter only similar opinions and don’t consider alternative points of view.” In the Philippines, the Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) fights fake news through having scientific consensus and clinical practice guidelines.
• “Question facts and assumptions.” Make it a habit to process and assess the information.
• “Nudge the truth.” Given that information gains credibility with repetition, repeating true and relevant information counteracts repeated misinformation and disinformation.
All this requires boldness and assertiveness. It is incumbent upon us to question or call out anyone, including President Marcos Jr., when he issues a statement that is an illusory truth. n
1 Radio Television Malacañang via GMA News. July 5, 2022. Live Stream: Press conference of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. following Cabinet meeting.
2 MIT Sloan Management Review. Aug. 17, 2022. “The Cognitive Shortcut that clouds Decision-Making”
3 Md Saiful Islam et al. October 2022. “COVID-19-Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis.” https://www.ajtmh.org/view/journals/tpmd/103/4/article-p1621.xml.
Erica Navelgas is a research associate for health policy of Action for Economic Reforms.