India — US surgeon general Vivek Murthy has some advice for Indian Americans and Indians as they deal with the unfolding devastating second wave of Covid-19 cases and wait for that dreaded phone call: watch out for misinformation in what you read, say or forward on social media platforms.
“Misinformation is a virus itself, and it harms people, and it sometimes compels them to take actions that puts put them and other people at risk,” Murthy said in a virtual outreach to Indian Americans on dangers of misinformation as India battles its worst public health crisis in a century.
“In a pandemic when you’re responding, information is power and if you can get the right information to people they can take steps to protect themselves,” Murthy said further, adding that the government and the private sector can make all the vaccine and masks they want, but “they will be of no value if people don’t want to use them because of misinformation about them”.
The United States and India are two countries hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic, with cases and fatalities highest and second highest in the world respectively. They have also been hit hard by misinformation – and sometimes willful disinformation – that has made some people underestimate Covid-19, suspicious of vaccines and dismissive of masks.
Murthy’s remarks were first by a top US health official to address the potential damage inflicted by misinformation on the global response – especially Americans – to the tragedy unfolding in India. The US has sent $100 million worth of government assistance and $400 million from the private sector.
If some Americans obsessed once about the magical powers of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, and briefly toyed with injecting household cleaning agents to flush the body of the deadly virus, Indians felt assured in their naturally-built immunity to fight off the virus or consider cow urine.
America’s top doctor spoke in personal terms to underscore the ubiquity of the problem, bringing up his parents, who are from Karnataka and came to the United States via the United Kingdom, where Murthy was born. “My parents like many other Indian immigrants of their generation are part of WhatsApp groups,” Murthy said, adding, “they serve a wonderful purpose of keeping them connected to friends and family, but they can also become platforms to which misinformation rapidly spreads and that has been the case”.
Social media platforms are facing questions around the world about their content and their culpability. They have begun flagging dodgy content and blocking serially egregious posters such as former president Donald Trump in the US and Bollywood star Kangana Ranaut in India.
Murthy’s way forward was couched in terms easily relatable for most Indians and Indian-descent Americans. “Remind yourself that the source matters, right, and the source is not your uncle or aunt or sister or brother who sent it to you on WhatsApp. The source is a person who created that content, who made that video put out that post, right.”