How austerity helped fuel the spread of Covid misinformation

Misinformation spreads when government steps back from its role as a purveyor and promoter of public health. A vacuum is created which allows false information to grow.

Coronavirus image

It must have been a strange day in the public relations department at Dettol when they had to release a statement warning people not to inject disinfectant to protect themselves against Covid-19. The comments from the US President that necessitated this reaction may have been rightly condemned and ridiculed, but the statement itself remains a prime example of one of the greatest public health threats we face in modern times – misinformation. 

Public health has often attracted conspiracists. The claim that vaccines can cause autism has been thoroughly debunked, yet still maintains relevance among online communities happy to resist the siren call of indisputable evidence. 

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the internet has been awash with potentially dangerous misinformation on the pandemic. From phony treatments like garlic and peppers, to bizarre claims that the 5G mobile network is behind the disease, conspiracies have even prompted the World Health Organisation to dedicate some of its scarce resources to debunking misinformation.

While it’s tempting to laugh off some of the more outlandish Covid-19 claims,we must take the threat of health misinformation seriously. Misinformation spreads when government steps back from its role as a purveyor and promoter of public health. A vacuum is created which allows false information to grow. 

This is something the current government now realises. Vast efforts and resources have been dedicated to combatting the spread of false information -the NHS is in partnerships with social media giants to spread government messaging; we have all received texts, letters, and calls to explain the threat;  and a unit has been set up within the Department of Culture, Sports and Media (DCMS) specifically to combat misinformation. 

Despite these initiatives, misinformation about Covid-19 is extremely prevalent. RecentInstitute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)  research has shown that almost half the population was exposed to or sent ‘fake news’ about the disease online within the first month of lockdown.. In a climate of misinformation, it becomes more difficult to contain health threats.

However, we need to be realistic about the solutions. We cannot regulate every corner of the internet, halt every single person from sharing ‘fake news’, monitor every bit of information an individual consumes. Instead, we must focus on how to equip people with the skills, knowledge, and reasoning to navigate health information. This is the essence of health education, not to shirk responsibility onto the individual, but to empower people to better understand the context and application of health information.

Unfortunately, years of funding cuts have left some of the most vital institutions unable to adequately support health education. School nursing numbers have diminished. Health visitors are over-burdened by their workload. Local authorities have struggled to maintain preventative services which play such a crucial role in promoting health education within communities.

To remedy the erosion of public health, we need to renew educational efforts, via a holistic approach that makes full use of those institutions which command the trust of the British public. First and foremost, the NHS, which IPPR has identified as the singularly most trusted source regarding health information needs to take a leading role. Its foray into technology has been well received by the public and more needs to be done to invest and develop new ways the NHS can use technology to reach individuals and help them better understand how they can look after their health, through this pandemic and beyond.

We also need to improve the offer of health education in our schools. Ensure that the resources are there to teach children and provide services which make them aware from a young age on how they can look after themselves, from thoroughly washing their hands to eating right. 

The state has an important role to play in the dissemination of health information and educating the public. It also has a role in supporting better social conditions so that people are more easily able to utilise this information to make practical changes in their everyday lives. The government has recognised their role and the value of education in the Covid-19 crisis. It is a lesson they will need to keep as we look to the health challenges ahead.

Dean Hochlaf is a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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