April 11, 2020

COVID-19: We Need Science to Save the Day, Not Panic & Fake News

This is a representational image. Source: The Quint
Odisha’s Health and Family Welfare (HFW) department has revealed the news of 16 fresh COVID-19 positive cases in the state, of which 15 were from Bhubaneswar, on 5 April. When most of the country was busy lighting diyas and candles, 8 out of 189 samples emerged as COVID-19 positive in Odisha.

With 34 positive cases detected in the last few days, the graph of affected people surged to 42 in Odisha. However, two of the patients have been discharged post recovery. 33 out of 42 COVID-19 active cases are from the city of Bhubaneswar.

‘Community Transmission’

While tests conducted on 3rd April confirmed infection in seven members from one house where state’s fifth positive case used to live, all 15 positive cases of the city were from the locality where three brothers were found positive of the virus.

Sudden rise in the number of persons infected by the novel coronavirus has raised the level of concern among people of the city and state. Experts believe that the source of most of the recent COVID-19 cases from Bhubaneswar being local, it is already in the second stage, that is local transmission stage, close to embracing the next stage of community transmission.

Surge in number distributed across six districts has also emerged as a strong reason for the state government and its machinery at work to introspect and re-evaluate all the actions initiated to stop the disease from spreading.

Spotting the Loopholes in COVID-19 Strategy

In order to contain COVID-19 in the state, Odisha had imposed a lockdown across the state since 24 March midnight and a complete shutdown in the twin city of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack and many other towns, in addition to necessary healthcare measures.

According to a study by the Imperial College, London COVID-19 Response Team, the purpose of a lockdown is to reduce reproduction by reducing the number of people each confirmed case infects.

However, the sudden spike in the number of COVID-19 patients in the last few days in Odisha, despite these measures, hints at some gaps in the strategy and action in containing the disease.

Though there is a lack of healthcare and testing facilities in all parts of the state, and inadequate supply of masks and other protective equipment remains a fundamental issue, people coming out of their homes in violation of lockdown guidelines remains an issue too.

Many with history of travel to foreign countries and most migrant workers who came from other states to their home villages neither visited a hospital suo moto for a health checkup nor stayed in self-quarantine.

However, the local sarpanch and a few NGO volunteers mobilised some to go to quarantine houses after they were opened in every gram panchayat. But, the number of beds being limited to 20-50 for a gram panchayat, against hundreds of migrant workers, many couldn’t find a place in these houses.

Lack of COVID-19 Awareness

Panic and poor awareness also stopped many from going to a quarantine facility or for a medical checkup, according to a volunteer from Bolangir who requested anonymity.

It’s a fact that people with no or less education in rural as well as urban Odisha do not yet understand what COVID-19 is and its gravity. According to a woman from Kandhamal, this is an urban disease and will come to their villages through people going from urban places.

In order to make people obey all guidelines and cooperate with the government in its fight against COVID-19, the first priority should be on communication to bring awareness among people instead of imposing ideas and orders on them to follow.

Importance of Scientific Communication

According to noted epidemic writer and policy analyst Laurie Garrett, communication plays an important role in addressing these issues.

Speaking on the information needs of people living in villages across the globe, Garrett said in a recent webinar by Columbia University’s Earth Institute Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, in association with Earth Journalism Network, “They (people) want to know – am I safe? Are my children safe? Am I being told the truth? If I am not safe what should I do to be safe?” This is the responsibility of the governments to provide all such information to people, which is not being done, she observed.

When these very basic questions go unanswered largely or to whatever extent, it leads to an information vacuum making space for misinformation to flow in and influence the mind of people who grasp them in the absence of real information and behave in a manner that is not expected of them.

Misinformation & Uncertainty

A great deal of the uncertainty about COVID-19 is linked to the misinformation that is circulating about it – particularly misrepresentations of risk to the public, who react more fearfully when kept from the facts, observes Sabrina Sholts, curator of biological anthropology at Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History.

To deal with the ambiguity that prevails in public mind, “scientific findings and projections about the disease, however frightening, at least shine some light into the perilous shadows,” she emphasises.

Scientific Temper Saves the Day

In order to educate the public, empower them to take right decision, and curb the march of misinformation or fake news to public domains, verified scientific information needs to flow to them in time, more frequently. More impactful is the process when experts from scientific community are engaged to communicate with public directly or through any effective medium.

As per definitions, the very purpose of science communication is to educate the ordinary masses by making science accessible. Unfortunately, scientific experts like doctors, epidemiologists and healthcare experts are almost absent from the single man led one way communication system adopted in Odisha, where the whole process is now steered by noted business leader Subroto Bagchi, placed as spokesperson for the state government.

The Way Forward

As the COVID-19 situation in Odisha as well as India worsens, now is the time for the governments to bring in scientific experts into the process to make the communication credible, educative and informative reflecting the emergent situation in its true view.

This would largely help people understand the seriousness of the disease and gravity of the COVID-19 situation in the state as well as in the country, and influence them to behave in the manner expected of them. This would also save lots of energy and resources employed by the government for forceful implementation of its policies and guidelines in the wake of the march of COVID-19.

This piece first appeared on The Quint.

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