Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says many people have harmed themselves as they engaged in self-medication with toxic chemicals or dangerous medications that were said to be capable of treating or preventing COVID-19.
He also noted that others had not taken the precautions they should have adopted to prevent COVID-19 or have it treated when they became infected.
Tedros spoke at a virtual event held in connection with the UN General Assembly, as the organisation and several of its agencies launched an appeal to battle misinformation about the global pandemic.
“Just as COVID has spread around the world, so too have rumours, untruths and disinformation,” WHO chief Ghebreyesus told the event.
“Far too many people have done themselves harm based on falsehoods, self-medicating with toxic chemicals or dangerous medications. Others have not taken the precautions they should have.”
He said these rumours and falsehoods affected trust in institutions and health systems, saying: “Everything that undermines that puts lives at risk.”
Experts at the event stressed the need to dramatically rethink how to communicate science-based findings to promote accurate data over misinformation.
Humans have always peddled in rumours, said Claire Wardle of First Draft, a group focused on responsible reporting, but those rumours have been “super-charged” because of the internet.
She said all actors who give out information to the public needed to do more than just provide facts and figures.
She suggested even adopting some of the strategies of the so-called anti-vax movement, which has increasingly been stoking fears about the coronavirus vaccines in development.
“Humans work in an emotional space,” Wardle said, adding: “We have to think very strategically about how we can create content that will be sharable by people online.”