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Virus fight inundated by misinformation

(123rf)
(123rf)

What’s making the fight against the coronavirus harder in South Korea is the spread of misleading information surrounding the new disease.

The National Police Agency embarked on a crackdown on circulation of coronavirus fake news as early as January, in coordination with the Korea Communications Commission and other relevant agencies.

The police said producing and peddling false information regarding the virus would be punishable under laws on obstruction of official duties and defamation.

The Korean Medical Association has warned against giving nonexperts a platform to weigh in on the disease.

“Doctors who lack expertise in coronavirus, such as a veterinarian or cosmetic surgeon, giving advice on the coronavirus can contribute to propagation of misinformation and misguide people,” said a KMA official. Speaking to reporters, he said citing nonspecialists can also imbue their opinions with a false authority.

Salacious stories disseminating unverified add to the confusion.

Last week, a claim that followers of Shincheonji -- a messianic Christian sect linked to over half of confirmed cases in Korea -- refused medical help circulated widely online, which was later picked up by certain local outlets.

Seoul National University Hospital, which housed the said patients at one of its centers, denied the reports, saying there has been “no confrontation at all” between inpatients and the staff.

Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, said confirmation bias is what is driving the spread of falsehoods amid the outbreak and uncertainties that surround it.

“Rising anxiety and fear as the little known infectious disease spreads is impelling people to look for and readily believe in explanations that are sometimes unsupported by evidence,” he said.

“We live in a world inundated with information where experts increasingly lose ground for authority. People tend to listen to things that match their preexisting beliefs, while ignoring those that contradict them.”

Conflicting messages from the government and experts is also what mystifies the public.

Doctors’ groups have contradicted the government’s guidance and decisions on multiple fronts from travel restrictions to face masks.

While Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said during a Feb. 26 meeting of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee that the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases had not recommended a broadened ban on arrivals from China, the society’s member doctors said the claims were untrue.

“There are divergent opinions on travel ban but (what the minister said) is not what the society has agreed on,” said one infectious disease professor at a Seoul medical school.

The medical society’s official statement published Feb. 2 says that the travel restrictions should extend beyond Hubei Province to include other affected Chinese provinces.

The KMA’s guidelines on face mask use also goes against the government’s, which says cotton face masks without filters and reuse of disposable masks are OK.

“For protection from the virus, using nonrespirator face masks or recycling single-use masks are not advisable,” a KMA official said.

On Sunday, the Health Ministry said the outbreak in Korea was stabilizing, with the curve beginning to flatten. But highlighting the progress at this point can be risky, experts said. One of them is preventive medicine specialist Choi Jae-wook at Korea University Hospital.

“The kind of aggressive testing that has taken place in (the country’s worst-hit) Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province should be conducted in other regions, in order to get a more comprehensive picture,” Choi said.

“What has to be made clear is that the COVID-19 is not likely to go away any time soon, and clusters of community infection will continue to emerge,” he said. “There are signs of a slowdown, yes, but we don’t want to read too much into numbers with the way things are now.”

Citizens say such mixed messages leave them confounded.

“It’s hard to decide if it’s safe to wear the same mask twice, or if we can believe things are starting to get better,” said a 31-year-old resident in Bonghwa, a North Gyeongsang county.

Addressing the discrepancies, the ruling Democratic Party has accused the KMA of political motives.

“The medical association, its leadership in particular, seems to be speaking with a political agenda,” the party’s spokesperson Hong Ihk-pyo said.

Sociologist Koo Jeong-woo of Sungkyunkwan University said health professionals have a responsibility for clear, consistent communication in a public health emergency.

“Health officials and experts need to be extremely wary of demonstrating political bias, which hurts the credibility of their opinions,” he said.

“Keeping their messages free of politics and staying neutral is a something that is a duty for health experts in a pandemic crisis. Politics meddling in risk communications inconveniences the public, who count on experts to deliver reliable information.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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