the coronavirus paradox: too much news, too little useful data

Despite having more news than ever before, people looking for information about COVID-19 are drowning in a tsunami of rumors, propaganda, misinformation, and scams.
paralysis by fear

They say that if you really want to know what someone is made of, you should see them in a crisis. Will they crumble under the stress and lash out, looking for someone to blame? Will they brave the uncertainty and risk, volunteering to help with their chins held high? Or will they smirk like a ghoul stumbling on someone about to breathe their last, circling their soon to be corpse in giddy expectation of a feast? The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought out both the best and absolute worst in people, and disturbingly, many of those in the latter category are those in positions of power and influence using a real crisis to grift and scam, keep settling their petty political scores, or find scapegoats for their glaring failures.

Thanks to social platforms caring only about engagement rather than context or effect, those searching for genuine, helpful, vetted information on the coronavirus, its treatment, and how well their communities are handling it are wading through an ocean of scams, conspiracy theories, partisan tirades, and ignorant bullshit. From blaming 5G towers and Bill Gates for creating the virus for population control, to angry racist invective aimed at public health officials, to using the pandemic as a flimsy pretext to repeal environmental protections and carbon taxes, to world leaders wondering if UV rays and bleach IVs can cure the virus because Facebook told them so, your social media news feed is pretty much guaranteed to be absolutely awful.

when pundits offer cures worse than the disease

Now, before we go any further, there are some things we need to address. First and foremost, if anyone says they know a cure for COVID-19, they’re lying. Scientists are still discovering how this virus works and why it’s such a nasty pain in the lungs. While remdesivir, a drug meant to tackle Ebola, seemed to show some hope as a treatment, the studies are inconclusive, with a small trial saying it has no net benefit and larger studies still in progress. Hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug touted by Trump as a miracle cure, has been abandoned since trials saw serious heart problems in coronavirus patients being treated with it. In short, we haven’t had the time or enough trials to find a reliable treatment, much less a cure.

Secondly, despite what the President of the United States says, injecting yourself with bleach or any other cleaning solution won’t just quickly kill you, it will hurt the whole time you’re dying, to borrow an oft used quip. It’s literally how some Nazis used to torture and murder “untermensch” in their extremination camps. Same goes for irradiating yourself with UV rays, which are very powerful mutagens. The amount of energy to which you’d need to be exposed to purge the virus from your cells would literally melt you, and if you’re wondering if that could even happen, grab a wastebasket for vomit, book a therapy appointment, then google the story of Hisashi Ouchi. And no, if anything, I’m underplaying what you’ll see and read.

when the news are more scary than useful

Thirdly, and very importantly, sometimes the misinformation you see comes from attempts to genuinely inform readers from respectable outlets which publish breathless stories about new discoveries and threats from COVID-19 such as a cluster of young, otherwise healthy patients dying of severe strokes due to accelerated blood clotting. While there’s certainly risk for anyone affected by the virus since it’s so new our bodies barely recognize it as a pathogen until is starts to wreak havoc across our bodies and immune systems, these reports are based on very small samples of patients and posit multiple assumptions as settled facts, a constant problem with so many viral health stories.

Someone young and healthy dropping dead out of the blue makes for an instantly clickable and shareable viral story, but it assumes that doctors knew everything about the medical history and underlying conditions and genetic data of the patients in question, which is actually rarely the case. Millions of people could be walking around with genetic predispositions and conditions ripe for a disease to exploit and never know it until the worst happens, which I realize is not a comforting thought, but very important to keep in mind. It’s still statistically unlikely for younger, healthier patients to die of coronavirus, but they’re not off the hook and they should be keeping an eye out for any weird symptoms, and report them accordingly.

Likewise, there can be serious misunderstandings when it comes to medical terminology and classifications not being translated into the common vernacular. For example, anyone under 60 is generally considered too young to have to worry about strokes, they don’t mean that no one under 60 should worry about having them or ignore the symptoms, it’s that they’re a quarter as likely to have one compared to those 60 or older. Geography can also play a part as the U.S. Deep South is known to some experts as “the stroke belt” while 80% of Canadians have at least one risk factor for a stroke. And thousands of pieces of information like this have to be kept in mind when you read shocking breaking health news and reports.

how to find a signal in the noise

So if reading the news today is like following an account of a third rate roadsize circus being consumed by flames as it overflows with sewage from lines damaged by decades of neglect and abuse, where can we get good information? Well, from the same places as always. Go to popular science sites and reputable news sources with a track record of accurate reporting on health and medical matters. Steer clear of their opinion sections for advice however, because those are just opinions and partisan trolls have made a hobby of screencapping bad takes in those opinion sessions to make it look as if legitimate publications are lying or ignorant so they can portray themselves as the only fair arbiters of fact.

Unless you’re being quoted public health officials, doctors, and scientists in the field, or those in authority citing their advice, feel free to disregard anything regarding the virus as speculation. Of all the times to put your trust in science, this is it. And thankfully, astroturf protests aside, 9 in 10 people very much support mass quarantines and social distancing, and trust scientists and doctors over politicians. Angry pundits on wingnut welfare repeating their tired old shtick louder and mentioning the coronavirus have always been as trustworthy as a drunk conspiracy theorist “in between jobs” at a backyard barbeque and should be dealt with the same way: ignored until they realize no one cares and they should just shut up and leave.

This is not the time to keep entertaining society’s failsons and daughters, spoiled sociopathic children in adult bodies who believe they are entitled to power because they have a certain last name or got a lot of pats on the head for being knee-jerk contrarians and thinking that made them smart. This pandemic couldn’t have been stopped, but it could have been handled much better, with much less economic disruption if those in power listened to the scientists, invested in their healthcare systems, and acted on the voluminous advice of policy experts over the past decade. What we’re seeing now are the consequences of letting people who have no place in any position of power or influence keep failing upwards. And it’s literally killing us.

# health // coronavirus / covid-19 / social media


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