If you’re entering the new year feeling less than prepared to take on what lies ahead, that’s okay. After all, we’ve just started year three of a pandemic some of us thought would last three weeks, maximum, at one point — and facing yet another new variant.
Because there are only so many Greek letters we can go through, it’s understandable to be a little frustrated that there are some people who still believe in the range of medical misinformation out there. These include misinformation about COVID-19 itself, as well as the life-saving vaccines developed throughout the last couple of years.
But the sad fact of the matter is, the fear and anxiety caused by pandemics and other health crises tend to cause corresponding crises about information — or what the World Health Organization calls an infodemic.
Unreliable information, hoaxes, and scapegoating of certain ethnic and disenfranchised groups tend to be a thing, as we’ve seen from the dangerous lies that circulated at the height of the bubonic plague and, more recently, the AIDS crisis.
Two years since the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns, medical misinformation continues to be a worrying issue, both to governments and to those of us with Extremely Online family and friends.
Sometimes, fake news can be as deadly as the virus itself. For example, hundreds died early on in the pandemic due to methanol alcohol poisoning, after the spread of a false claim that drinking it can protect you from COVID-19.
But it can also work in more subtle ways: Fake claims about COVID-19 and how to protect yourself can lure you into a false sense of safety. “I’m already taking Vitamin D!” an aunt might say, “No need for a mask.”
It’s worsening the situation. A recent study revealed that those who believe in COVID-19 misinformation tend to get tested less and violate health protocols more. And, if tested, they are more likely to test positive.
Worse still, many patients who test positive for COVID-19 still think the pandemic is a hoax.
COVID-19 Myths, Two Years On
Myth 1: It’s Just Like the Flu
There are some similarities. For instance, COVID-19 causes several flu-like symptoms, like fever, a cough, body aches, and sometimes, pneumonia. And like the flu, these can range from mild to severe, and fatal.
But there are also stark differences. For starters, COVID-19 is a lot more contagious than the flu, and its reproduction number, or the number of other infections caused by one infected person, is much higher. It’s also likely to go even higher with newer variants: Reports reveal that the latest, Omicron, is so contagious that it’s set to usher in an unprecedented surge in cases.
COVID-19 is also a lot deadlier than the flu. We’re learning more about the pandemic every day, but of the 290 million reported cases worldwide, 5.44 million have resulted in deaths — just above the population of South Carolina — for an estimated mortality rate of 1.87%. In contrast, the mortality rate of the seasonal flu is around 0.1%.
Last but certainly not least, COVID-19 also causes some long-term health effects, known as post-COVID syndrome, that people don’t talk about enough. The list is long: brain damage, breathing issues, heart problems, and kidney damage are just some of the bigger concerns.
So, no. It’s not just the flu.
Myth 2: A Negative COVID Test Means You Are Safe
Unfortunately, this is untrue.
Although COVID-19 testing — and more importantly, mass testing — continues to be a crucial part of an effective COVID-19 response, a negative result does not guarantee that you are COVID-free.
There is a chance, for example, that you were tested too soon after being in contact with someone who had COVID-19. In this case, the infection has not developed enough to be detected, and you get a false negative.
This is why people who have been exposed to the virus still need to be careful even though they test negative, as they may test positive in a few days’ time. Experts recommend waiting 5-7 days after exposure to be sure.
Moreover, testing negative today doesn’t mean you can’t be exposed later on. You still aren’t immune to COVID-19, after all, and will need to keep practicing health protocols afterward.
Myth 3: Vaccines Will Embed Microchip Surveillance Technology Into Your Body (And the Tech Is Funded by Bill Gates)
This myth is one of the wilder ones, but is no less popular for it. Although the tech sounds kind of cool, there’s no vaccine — COVID-19 or otherwise — that can do this.
Microchips are still too big to be inserted through a needle. And if you’d like to do your own research, organizations like the CDC have published lists of COVID-19 vaccine ingredients.
Interestingly, Bill Gates has become something of a regular in conspiracy theories, and this one is based on a 2019 study, partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about keeping a vaccination record on a patient’s skin. The record uses biocompatible invisible dye that can last up to five years, but it can’t be tracked remotely or continuously.
Myth 4: COVID-19 Vaccines Are Causing New Variants
Vaccines are designed to prevent severe infection and death, so this myth is far from the truth.
In fact, variants are caused by the virus replicating itself when infecting people. Here’s a straightforward explanation by the WHO:
The relationship between vaccination rates and new variants is still being studied. But based on what we know about virus mutations, it’s easy to see how places with low vaccination rates tend to have more person-to-person transmissions — and therefore, plenty of opportunity for mutation.
Myth 5: Herd Immunity Is the Key to Ending the Pandemic, so We Don’t Need Vaccines
This myth is perhaps one of the most flawed, but also one of the most rotten.
Herd immunity is when infectious disease cases slow down because enough people have immunity — either from previously getting the disease or being vaccinated. This myth focuses solely on the former, not the latter. But herd immunity is part of the reason why we’ve long been vaccinating people for previously devastating health issues like polio and measles (and why the anti-vax movement caused the resurgence of measles in 2019).
Being vaccinated for these diseases means you have a lower chance of getting them. But more crucially, getting vaccinated can prevent the disease from spreading to others who’ve never had it or aren’t able to get the vaccine. This is the case for those who are too young, like newborns, or who have compromised immune systems. Either way, getting vaccinated helps protect the most vulnerable of our society.
So, herd immunity is a good thing. But with so many refusing to get vaccinated, many of the people being loud about herd immunity are also loud anti-vaxxers.
The problem with herd immunity without vaccination is that we’d need around 60-70% of our entire population to get COVID-19 to achieve it. With approximately 7.9 billion people on the planet, the lower end of that range requires some 4.74 billion to get sick.
With a mortality rate of around 1.87%, that means 88.64 million people would have to die.
To believe in this myth means that you are okay with millions — most likely the young and already sick — dying. And even then, there are no guarantees that the herd immunity we develop will be effective against further variants caused by increased mutation.
But Why Do We Still Fall For COVID-19 Misinformation?
A Good Bad Story
Part of what makes misinformation so compelling is the stories themselves. The myths above push the right buttons of fear, shock, disgust, or amazement, and hold a certain kind of truthiness, which is to say that they have the power to seem true, even if they aren’t, especially for those who hear them for the first time.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Stories become more believable the more often we hear them. Being exposed to the same myth makes us more likely to believe it the second and succeeding times — even if we might’ve been skeptical the first time.
Part of the problem is that some of our leaders, who are supposed to be the ones leading us out of this crisis, have been parroting these myths. Trump, for example, is a serial spreader of that first myth, and even admitted to knowing it’s not true months later. By then, of course, it was too late.
Aside from leaders like Trump, another driver of repeated exposure to the same myths is our tendency to share stories even when we don’t think they’re true. A 2020 experimental study found that although only around 25% of study participants thought a fake news headline shown to them was true, about 35% expressed that they would share it. This suggests that we tend to share content without critically thinking about accuracy.
The Media Landscape We Have
The same study also highlights that something about social media is accelerating the truthiness problem. “Social media doesn’t incentivize truth,” explains lead researcher Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina. “What it incentivizes is engagement.”
In today’s attention economy, this engagement is crucial for platforms. In the realm of anti-vaccine disinformation and misinformation, for example, social media platforms stand to gain a staggering $1.1 billion in annual revenue.
Of course, this isn’t to say that social media itself is to blame, as fake news has been around for far longer. But it certainly plays a role in amplifying leaders like Trump, and in letting myths spread much faster.
And Finally, a Lack of Trust
The pandemic is a crisis about health, but it’s also a crisis of public trust — which governments around the world have been losing since before the pandemic.
The during has also been worrisome. I’ve already mentioned Trump, who early on not only downplayed COVID-19 many times but also undermined scientists while offering up his own bright idea of using bleach as treatment (which, I hate that I have to highlight, is fake! Don’t try it).
In the months since, governments around the world have used the pandemic as a way to further cement authoritarian rule and stifle free speech, or otherwise continue to ignore suggestions from the scientific community in the interest of for-profit health systems.
The confusion over questionable quarantine guideline changes has also further weakened public trust, leading to a slew of (admittedly very funny) CDC-themed tweets.
This distrust has helped push even some of the smartest people towards COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which are supported by anti-mask and anti-vax groups. And this, perhaps, is one of the most worrying things about medical misinformation.
Just like we can’t personal responsibility our way out of the pandemic, we can’t fix the problem of COVID myths by just debunking them and trying to educate other people. Some might be way past that. And until governments regain public trust, it would be hard to persuade them to believe and follow the science.