Surviving the Covid-19 ‘infodemic’
Like the virus itself, the information overload around it is making us vulnerable to stress and anxiety
For the last few weeks, the word “epidemic" has infiltrated our sleep and waking hours, for entirely justified reasons. But we have not heard the term “infodemic" as much, though it was also flagged as a form of contagion by the World Health Organization (WHO) as early as the beginning of February. Since then, it seems to be spreading as fast as the Covid-19 virus, with millions around the world giving it wing, unwittingly or otherwise, amplifying it with a well-meaning click, or an innocuous tap on a screen. Like the virus itself, the information overload is making us vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
According to one estimate, over 45% of the world’s population currently uses smartphones. It is likely that close to that number of people wake up to an electronic screen every morning and look at it one last time before falling asleep every night. In the course of a day, we pick up our phones over 2,500 times (according to a 2016 study). Information keeps pouring in from known and unknown sources through social media outlets, WhatsApp, other messaging services. Add to these television, radio, magazines and newspapers, and the infodemic looks as lethal as any pandemic. The mental health cost of such a screen-led lifestyle is steep.
“With social media, the flight-fight-freeze mechanism of the human brain is constantly on," says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta, who is also the author of a forthcoming book, Anxiety: Overcoming It To Live Without Fear. “People are always already looking out for danger these days." According to Gupta, this “catastrophizing" behaviour gets magnified by the number of stressors we are surrounded by now. From the Uber driver cancelling a ride to a missed call notification on our phone screen, the brain seems to get triggered by the slightest of reasons. Originally designed to protect human beings from dangerous predators, the organ is failing to cope with the volume of micro-stressors coming at it from every direction.
There’s genuinely useful information, of course, such as medical guidelines shared by WHO and other reliable bodies. But there’s unwarranted misinformation from the so-called “WhatsApp university". India’s ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (Ayush) claimed a homeopathic drug as a palliative for Covid-19, until fake news busting platform Alt News debunked it as a scientifically unsound and unproven assertion. A politician extolled the virtues of cow excreta and urine as cures for the coronavirus. A viral (excuse the pun) video going around has a group of women singing a ditty asking “Corona" to go away. As a remedy, it is about as effective as abstaining from drinking Corona beer, which, at one point, was rumoured to be causing the Covid-19 disease.
At the other end, at least 16 people are believed to have died in Iran, according to a BBC report, due to methanol poisoning. They seemed to have mistakenly believed that drinking alcohol would cure the novel coronavirus, when the advisory was most likely to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers to keep the virus at bay.
Sections of the mainstream media have not been far behind in fanning stress. Although WHO officially designated Covid-19 as a pandemic only this week, the word has been in currency for weeks now, thrown into casual conversations, bandied around in hot takes by experts, op-ed writers and influencers .
In 2003, when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another deadly viral disease, broke out, none of the major social media outlets was around. Only research can quantify if such a situation led to less panic around the world then, but it is likely to have stemmed the spread of rumours. Since SARS, epidemics such as Zika, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and H1N1 (swine flu) have wreaked havoc in real life, but the scale of anxiety induced by Covid-19 feels more heightened. Even the best intentions , such as the automated phone advisory circulated by telecom companies that begins with a bout of coughing, are possibly spiking paranoia among listeners instead of calming their jangled nerves.
With such an unregulated infodemic spreading apace, Gupta believes a global mental health crisis is impending. Between compassion fatigue and irrational fear, our hope against Covid-19 is to calm down our monkey minds and get our information only from approved scientific sources.