By Eric Law
Healthcare workers on the front lines are battling the novel coronavirus as it sweeps across the world. While the virus itself wreaks havoc and generally brings normalcy to an end for hundreds of millions of Americans, a new more insidious battle front has emerged. Propagandists and conspiracy theorists have taken advantage of the fears and uncertainties natural in this situation to enrich themselves through books sales and video royalties. In so doing, they have broadcast a litany of misinformation that puts at risk thousands more lives than the virus was already bound to claim.
The number of factual distortions or outright lies disseminated by these people makes any wholesale fact checking nearly impossible. That being said, I’d like to try to clear the air on just a few points.
First, face masks are not going to make you sick or make infection more likely. While there was some early guidance from public health officials that the general public should not wear masks, there is absolutely no disagreement on the issue any longer. It is clear that the risks of viral spreading are lower if everyone wears a mask in public settings. This means even if you feel well, you should wear a mask.
As awkward as it feels, widespread use of masks is very likely to save thousands of lives – especially as we transition to “opening up the economy” even as the virus is still actively spreading. Let us not confuse this as an issue of freedom – it is not. You are free to do whatever you like, but if you choose not to wear a mask in a public space, you endanger your health and (more importantly) the health of those around you.
Second, vaccines are in no way responsible for the spread of this virus nor is a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus something to be feared or avoided. Ironically, as many of us cling to the hope that an effective vaccine will be found to end the pandemic within 12-18 months, this handful of malevolent messengers are already planting seeds of doubt that could prevent many from getting vaccinated. An effective vaccine is the best case scenario in this situation; it is something we should embrace.
Third, the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness is NOT similar to the flu. This coronavirus is more contagious and far deadlier than the flu – at least ten times deadlier, probably more. In just over 2 months, it has killed far more Americans than the flu has in any full year in the last decade – this despite the dramatic measures that have been taken. And don’t be fooled into thinking that coronavirus deaths are being inflated falsely. The data seems to indicate that the opposite is true. According to statistical analysis, and due in part to a lack of testing availability, there seems to be an under-counting of the deaths that should be attributed to the novel coronavirus.
There are many other falsehoods that need to be corrected – that the virus was created or manipulated in a lab (studies prove it wasn’t); that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment (studies show that it has no benefit on survival or duration of illness); or that social distancing for a few months weakens our immune system to the point that we are more likely to get sick (I suppose these people are currently out licking the transit system handrails to help strengthen their immune system?). But for now, I’ll have to settle for just a few corrections.
Perhaps one last point needs to be made though: Don’t get your medical information or news from social media.
Just because something is trending on Twitter or liked by your friend on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. And if someone tells you that they alone have information that the medical system has been keeping from you, they are almost certainly selling you a pack of lies.
We want so badly for someone to tell us that COVID-19 isn’t as bad as they say, or that we should all just get back to normal. But the truth of the matter is we are still in a very difficult situation with no easy answers and no certain conclusions or timelines. And what we need is not some secret, inside information or false reassurance. What we need is to show respect and love for each other in a very difficult time.
Wear a mask. If not for you, do it for the person standing a few feet away who is more vulnerable to the disease than you are and is, quite frankly, scared. Respect the person in front of you in line by keeping a healthy social distance of six feet or more. And please, if we are blessed to have a vaccine against this virus in the foreseeable future, get vaccinated (and get your flu vaccine too).
Instead of sharing the lies of these propagandists on social media, let’s share something more substantive. Let’s share something that really will likely save lives. Let’s share some love and show some respect to those around us. Let’s make that go viral.
Dr. Eric Law practices at Southern Health Associates in Troy.