Panic stations: fear amid an ‘infodemic’

Underground stationOn 24 November 2017, two men had an altercation in an underground station at London’s Oxford Circus.

It was a Friday evening and the city centre was filled with people and shoppers. The fight triggered alarm among the underground crowd, then widespread panic. In seconds, terrified fleeing people spilled out onto Oxford Street, running, ducking for cover and calling 999 to report gunshots.

The popular singer Olly Murs, who was reported to have been at the Selfridges department store at the time, tweeted ‘F— everyone get out of Selfridge now gun shots!!’ People on the street, seeing the bodies spill out, also began to flee. A stampede ensued; 85 minutes after the altercation – established later by police to not have been terror-related or involved guns – 16 people had to be treated for injuries.

The Oxford Circus incident is an example of the potent consequences of fear and misinformation. There is much uncertainty and fear in the current COVID-19 crisis. We fear the disease itself, the possibility of death, the unknown. We fear the loss of our livelihoods, our ability to connect with others as we have done and of life as we know it. Many of us have already suffered losses, and for some the prospect of more loss is devastating. Much of this fear is real.

But there is also much misinformation, intended or not. As just one example, an old map showing the extent of global air travel has been passed off as illustrating the extent of global contagion by COVID-19. Falsehoods about COVID-19 are rife, spanning conspiracy theories, disease prevention strategies and potential cures. Indeed, one of Macquarie Dictionary’s new ‘words to watch’ for April 2020 is ‘infodemic‘.

Historically, pandemics have tended to elicit social discrimination. Global health expert Allan Brandt believes that an important lesson from previous pandemics is that inappropriate language in the public domain can undermine efforts to contain disease.

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for example, women and children infected through blood transfusions were reported in the news as ‘innocent victims’ – implying that people infected through sexual intercourse were not. Among others, Der Spiegel magazine’s recent headline ‘Corona virus: made in China’ and US President Trump’s reference to the ‘Chinese virus’ have racialised the pandemic and revisited old divisions.

COVID-19 is not the first flu strain to have disrupted lives, but it comes at a critical point in time when our sources of information are an amalgam of mainstream and social media. Fear is contagious; it can make us small and turn inwards. But it need not strip us of our reasoning and our choices in how we respond.

Whether we like it or not, we are all participants in this pandemic: we all have a role – big or small – in influencing the outcome. As individuals, we are told to wash our hands regularly and to keep a safe distance from others. Perhaps as communicators, we should be reminded by COVID-19 that we have a social responsibility for the claims that we make in the public domain and how we make them.

Image: Shutterbug75 via Pixabay

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