Manitoba’s top doctor has been busy in recent days debunking disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social media posts have been downplaying the impact of the pandemic on the health care system. In some cases, people have walked into hospital waiting rooms with cameras and bothered staff.
Experts on health information say the spread of misinformation is only making the pandemic worse — and like the virus, they say it’s important to stop it from spreading.
“My sense is there’s a rise in misinformation in the context of COVID and in addition to that, a further polarization,” said Timothy Caulfied, a University of Alberta professor and Canada Research Chair in health law and policy. “So I think things are getting tense out there and it has having a real impact on people’s behaviour.”
In Manitoba, there have been protests against pandemic restrictions, including one in Steinbach this past weekend when attendees openly defied public health orders and were observed yelling at enforcement officers.
And in a video recently shared on social media, someone is seen walking into a waiting room at Victoria General Hospital, pestering a health care worker. The person falsely claims the empty chairs they observed are evidence the pandemic isn’t as bad as people are being told.
“Social media posts of this nature are erroneous and dangerous and the (Winnipeg Regional Health Authority) does not support them and will not validate them further by offering comment specific to these posts,” a WRHA spokesperson said in an email.
Other videos posted online made similar claims about Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach.
The claims couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Manitoba’s chief public health officer.
“Walking into an emergency room waiting room and taking a picture for a few minutes of it being not crowded doesn’t mean anything,” Dr. Brent Roussin said on Tuesday.
In recent days Roussin has spoken out against social media posts spreading misinformation and people who purposely defy public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
“It would be great if by just ignoring it we’d all be okay, but it’s quite clear, it should be quite obvious, that’s not the case,” Roussin said Wednesday.
It comes as deaths and cases of COVID-19 surge in the province and frontline nurses and doctors warn about the health care system’s capacity to cope.
“The issue of misinformation and its spread is almost being seen as kind of the dual pandemic,” said Michelle Driedger, a University of Manitoba professor in the department of community health studies.
Driedger said misinformation and disinformation, which is often designed to be easily shared on social media, undermine efforts to contain the virus.
Driedger said tackling it head on, like Dr. Roussin has done, is the right strategy.
“I think it was an important signal to send to indicate that no, none of this that is being portrayed in this context is true,” said Driedger.
Experts point out misinformation and disinformation is spread by people from all walks of life. When it comes to COVID-19, they say it seems to be fuelled by conspiracy theories questioning the existence and origins of the virus, ideological agendas as well as pandemic fatigue or opposition to public health measures.
No matter what’s causing it or who’s spreading it, Caulfield said it’s important to debunk it.
“If you get out there and correct the misinformation, I know it may not feel like it but we’re talking about moving the needle here, it really does work.”
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