In coronavirus fight, misinformation remains major barrier: Expert

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Drinking alcohol or bleach, shaving beards, and taking vitamin supplements are some things people have tried to protect themselves from coronavirus as misinformation becomes one of the biggest issues faced by countries as they assess pandemic preparedness in the digital age.


So far, COVID-19, or coronavirus, has made over 106,000 ill and killed more than 3,600 globally. Now, it is present in at least 92 countries, and while the number of infections has slowed in China, the virus’s epicenter, infections are unlikely to slow globally soon.

According to a World Health Organization study, only 95 countries had publicly available pandemic preparedness plans out of 194 countries analyzed. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt have publicly available strategies to deal with an infectious disease outbreak.

Preparedness has to begin at the top and flow down to lower entities, and having one universal message across the board is essential, Dr. Marie-Louise Van Eck, regional medical director for the Middle East and North Africa and International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm, told Al Arabiya English.

Having accurate information distributed widely is key.

Media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all taken steps to fight inaccurate coronavirus information, but it has still proliferated in certain corners of the internet, such as Facebook groups.

“One of the biggest challenges currently is countering misinformation online, which is something we don’t talk that much about in pandemic preparedness. In this outbreak it is a big problem, and our strategy for dealing with it needs improvement,” said Dr. Christine Blackburn, deputy director, Pandemic & Biosecurity Policy Program at the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

Global preparedness

Beyond misinformation, the world has made progress in some areas of preparedness, for example, in global efforts to develop vaccines, sharing information and scientific knowledge between governments, field diagnostics, and other important elements of response and surveillance, Blackburn said.

But even with recent outbreaks, such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the world isn’t learning from past pandemics and is no better prepared to handle an outbreak than it was 10 years ago, Blackburn said.

“With regards to scientific advancements and the ability to develop a vaccine, we have greater knowledge and capabilities,” she said. “Overall, the world is only moderately prepared.”

Today, preparedness may be more important as ever. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the chance of a new global pandemic outbreak rises.

“We are always only one flight away from an infectious disease that spreads, or one flight away from a potential epidemic,” said Van Eck.

Read more: Coronavirus already a pandemic under WHO guidelines: Expert

Yet, despite its importance, the world remains unprepared. As the world has become more interconnected, the global flow of goods has become more interdependent on timely delivery of supplies, leading to lower costs and more choice for consumers. However, this leaves manufacturers more vulnerable to any disruption in the supply chain, whether that be the coronavirus in 2020, or the US-China trade war in 2019.

The world’s “just-in-time economy and global supply chain networks make us all globally more vulnerable, and in that way the world is not prepared at all,” Blackburn said.

Plans in place

The WHO leads the global effort on combatting infectious disease, and governments, and local health care systems must be prepared for each new outbreak.

Beyond that, everyone at all levels must be willing to adopt the orders passed down.

In all countries, health care workers are the first line of defense and they must be given the needed tools to respond from the top, Van Eck said.

Read more: How deadly is the coronavirus and is there a cure: 10 questions answered

“They’re the first ones to see a patient, and they need to have the relevant information to tackle the problem,” she said.

The WHO report global pandemic readiness read, “A moderate or severe influenza pandemic will test the limits of resilience of nations, companies, and communities, depending on their capacity to respond. No single agency or organization can prepare for a pandemic on its own. Inadequate or uncoordinated preparedness of interdependent public and private organizations will reduce the ability of the health sector to respond during a pandemic.”

Readying economies to take the hit

Coronavirus has already had major impacts on global markets, with the US stock market taking the largest hit since the 2008 financial crisis. Now, businesses must now brace themselves for what’s yet to come.

Businesses need to get “all the stakeholders involved, make sure they monitor the situation, keep very close contact with the local authorities, understand what the travel restrictions and bans are and know where your suppliers are coming from as well,” Van Eck said. Stockpiling of necessary supplies to ensure business flow continues may also be necessary.

In terms of economic impact and supply chain interruptions, it is much too early to predict future disruptions, Van Eck said.

Individuals though have already started stockpiling certain goods, like toilet paper, and disruptions to supply chains could mean shortages of these goods down the line.

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