Issue COVID-19: Battling the Infodemic

While we in the Midwest may feel distant from the humanitarian crisis happening across the globe, the implications of this virus carry consequences for more than just our personal safety. This age of globalization, information and technology has ensured that no sector remains untouched: politics, the economy, trade, ethics & morality, social unrest, news & reporting and more. Read more below for an op-ed reflection from the team.

In a region traditionally characterized by blissful unawareness, simple life and quiet existence, global events often remain as headlines in the morning paper or brief mentions on the local TV station. But the world around us is changing rapidly in the age of information, and the breaking down of historical barriers that once kept the Midwest distant—time and space—make our current disconnect perhaps less of an unavoidable effect and more of a conscious desire to remain at peace. 

The rise of the now-infamous COVID-19—the novel coronavirus rapidly spreading across China and now the globe, currently having infected over 80,000* people and killed over 2,000* based on official reports (and more unreported)—has made its way to us through our iPhones and TV screens (yes, some still get their news from cable), but daily life has changed little, and bliss, simplicity and quiet remain the status quo in many parts of the U.S.

Graphic by Logan Sander for Midstory.

In the twenty-first century, coverage of global events in American news media has fallen dramatically, with a Pew Research Center study finding that “coverage of international events is declining more than any other subject.” A 2008 survey showed 64% of participating newspaper editors reporting their papers were “giving less space to international news” and 46% saying they were “devoting fewer reporting and editing resources to the subject.”

Moreover, Midwesterners themselves have a much smaller likelihood of following up with news they do hear about than do Americans from other parts of the U.S. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, “More than half (55%) of Westerners sought out additional information ‘very often,’ more than three times as often as Midwesterners, who did so 17% of the time.”

Of course, in recent years as the effects of globalization intensify and international crises seem to compound by the day—and as social media makes it impossible to avoid—we cannot help but be aware of the bushfires in Australia or the missile launches from Iran. But years of blissful ignorance and lack of international coverage have left us without what Dan Halton, journalist and Editor-in-Chief at Global NGO, calls “an invaluable source of accrued knowledge.” In other words, we often don’t have the context to truly understand the effects of events on a global scale.

But even with context, anyone following the news these days knows with increasing clarity that we simply don’t know the full truth behind the issues surrounding COVID-19. According to CNBC, “The U.S. does ‘not have high confidence in the information coming out of China’ … There has been skepticism among researchers that the official numbers reflect how contagious the virus truly is.” Unreported cases and lack of transparency from the Chinese government leave us vulnerable to the truth, and incomplete understanding is part of what makes this incident so striking.

What we know:What we don’t:
As of Feb. 23, 2020, the reported infection numbers stand at over 80,000 worldwide and deaths at over 2,000. The accurate infection and mortality rates. Standards for identifying COVID-19 continue to change as further research comes out, changing numbers by the day. 
Infection rates and death tolls continue to rise in countries outside of China.How many more people might be unknowingly affected, and whether numbers being released from governments across the world are accurate. 
The virus’ incubation period is much longer than that of similar illnesses, with the current estimate at 14 days. In addition, people can have the virus, yet appear asymptomatic, showing no signs of illness.The actual incubation period. While stated to be 14 days, there are reports that the incubation period of the virus could be longer. This means that transmissions could happen from person to person for a much longer period than previously thought.
China placed a quarantine on Wuhan on January 23, though large numbers traveled in and out of and throughout China for Lunar New Year in the days prior.When the Chinese government first knew about the virus, as official government transcripts reveal Chinese President Xi Jinping knew as early as two weeks before they announced it to the world on Jan. 20.
Several companies are racing to develop a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus.The source of the virus, though it’s believed to have originated in some type of animal and to have mutated along the way. Researchers released reports indicating there may have been alternate sources of human-to-human transmission before the contamination at the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market. 

The gaps in information, in particular surrounding the development of the coronavirus in China, leave us vulnerable—not only regarding our personal safety, but also in understanding the global humanitarian crisis. The United States is a mere 14-hour flight from the other side of the globe, and so in this era of interconnectedness… no, ignorance is not bliss.

Recent news tells of the COVID-19 death toll now surpassing that of SARS fatalities in 2003, and Chinese and global citizens alike are finding unsettling similarities in the way the government is handling the crisis—most notably, its lack of transparency to the outside world. But this 2019-2020 crisis finds itself in a much different world than in 2003, and the age of information makes this event more influential—not just because it’s more infectious (especially in this age of connectedness) but because of the simultaneous wealth and lack of information available; information is available anywhere online, but discerning what is accurate is another story.

Beyond the imminent global health threat, the disease has also exposed systemic vulnerabilities in almost every sphere of our existence: in public health protocol, in economic infrastructure, in social unrest, in political power, in humanitarian response and in seeking verifiable and accurate sources of information. It’s not just about the virus anymore, and certainly not just about China. Environmental, economic, social and ethical structures are faltering in this global crisis, leading even those of us “far” from the outbreak to be awakened. 

On October 15, 2019, just a few months before the appearance of COVID-19, the World Bank wrote about the impact a global health crisis could have on our world:

“Today, the threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one – a quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies, and destabilize national security. Climate change, urbanization, and the lack of water and sanitation are all factors that could contribute to fast-spreading, catastrophic outbreaks.”

The truth is that the unknowns make this global health crisis as dangerous as things we know do; the fundamental battle in this coronavirus debacle is against the infodemic. We in the Midwest can no longer remain isolated or carry on as usual. The Toledo region alone hosts two of the nation’s largest healthcare and hospital systems, and while the 2019 novel coronavirus may seem very far from the Midwest, it offers the opportunity for us to be on the forefront of public health and education—to do our part in stemming a global crisis. And on a personal level, that begins with educating ourselves about the truth and increasing awareness across the community. 

Our major battle right now may not be the frontlines of virus control (although it “likely” could be soon, according to the CDC), but it absolutely is our responsibility as citizens of a global village to have understanding, and, as a healthcare powerhouse, to be the first ones to advocate for the education, health and well-being of citizens in our region, in the nation and even throughout the globe.

“Heroes don’t fall from the sky. They’re just ordinary people who step forward,” graffiti on a concrete wall in Hong Kong displayed after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who succumbed to the disease shortly after his controversial attempt to warn the Chinese people about the virus. 

In a chapter from the Ohio State University’s Humanities Institute’s The American Midwest, the authors observe a region characterized “by an acceptance of the status quo, a distrust of idiosyncrasy, an avoidance of confrontation, and a general lack of self-reflection.” While the digital age may have begun to change this (and while it may be a generalization), factors like the lack of media representation and publication as well as the social disconnectedness with the rest of the nation preserve remnants of that status quo, making us feel distant from what’s going on across the world. But we can’t afford to be that way anymore. 

Crises like the COVID-19 outbreak violently rip that veil, reminding us of what connects human beings across the world, not just physically but as citizens of a common, civic and social global body. Humans across the world are in crisis—facing sickness, death and struggle—and that reason alone is enough to awaken us. Recent American memory may not recall war raid drills or food rations, but in this age of globalization and mass data, the COVID-19 outbreak causes us to face a common challenge, and we should ask ourselves—are we ready?

*All numbers are accurate as of February 25, 2020. For updated live-tracking, visit https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.

1 COMMENT

  1. Our world pumps so much information into us every day that humans reach a tolerance to it. It is known as adrenaline overload. We just don’t have the energy or empathy anymore to move forward. We can only handle what affects us. Sad but true.

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