The Color of Coalescing Crises: The COVID-19 Pandemic & Infodemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a global health emergency with racial, socioeconomic and environmental impacts. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 13,150,000 cases and 574,000 deaths globally as of mid-July 2020. WHO’s global regional data on COVID-19, with the highest country case counts, are: the Americas (U.S.: 3,344,783); Africa (South Africa: 298,292); Eastern Mediterranean (Iran: 262,173); Europe (Russia: 746,369); Southeast Asia (India: 936,181); and Western Pacific (China: 85,677). The proliferation of COVID-19 cases indicates how potent and infectious the disease is. U.S. COVID-19 data show stark racial and ethnic disparities for contraction and death rates for BIPOC. According to APM Research Lab, current COVID-19 mortality in the U.S. per 100,000 people is as follows: The death rate for Black Americans is approximately 2.3 times that of White; for Indigenous people, 1.5 times; and for Latinx, 1.1 times. Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately afflicted with COVID-19 due to front-line jobssystemic inequities in the health system, and underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. 

BIPOC communities historically face barriers to critical information, resources and quality healthcare. Information has been pertinent to announcing hot spots, risk factors and mitigation techniques (e.g., social distancing, mask protocol and hygienic practices). In addition to WHO, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have trusted authority over disseminating information on COVID-19. From a U.S. historical perspective, disinformation disbursed to BIPOC communities has had lasting impacts. From the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to government birth control experiments on Puerto Rican women, and involuntary sterilization programs conducted on Indigenous women, disinformation and misleading tactics have led to sustained medical mistrust for BIPOC communities, due to medical research exploitation.

Our digital era, with computers, social media, mobile devices and the Internet, provides people who have access to technology, broadband and Wi-Fi the ability to retrieve information instantaneously. Concurrently, a digital divide exists: According to the Pew Research Center, smartphones are used more often among Black and Latinx adults for Internet access. They indicate that 25% and 23% of Latinx and Black adults, respectively, do not have traditional home broadband service and use smartphones solely to access the Internet; for White adults, 12%. The Pew Research Center also published race-based data on household access to broadband: Black households, 66%; Latinx, 61%; and White, 79%. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cited that about 100 million Americans are not subscribed to broadband service where it’s available. They also reported that in rural areas, one-fourth of the population lacks access to broadband; in “tribal areas,” almost one-third.

No access (or limited access) to broadband creates a structural barrier to information. Information is expeditiously communicated through media, social media and digital platforms. We are in the midst of not only a global health crisis, but also an information crisis; an “infodemic.” An infodemic is a surfeit of misleading news, misinformation and disinformation that pervades digital and print platforms. Since the pandemic, people have increased their time online. Internet users often encounter fake and misleading news on social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Fake news during the pandemic has placed lives at undue risk. The prevalence of fake news has created the need for innovative communications strategies on fact-based information from WHO, CDC and NIH related to COVID-19, mitigation practices and treatment protocols. The duality of a global health and information crisis calls for prompt action from technology companies, media platforms, etc., to ensure that veracious information is shared with users, while not allowing mis- and disinformation to infiltrate digital and print mediums.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coalesced with an infodemic, creating concurrent crises. Access to fact-based information is necessary to ensure the health and safety of communities, particularly for BIPOC who face economic and health inequities, along with higher susceptibility rates for COVID-19. A multisectoral and granular approach is essential to address infodemics. Individually, information literacy, reporting fake news and cultivating a trusted network for sharing information are needed measures. WHO and other entities should maintain sharing mythbusters and collaborations with technology companies to develop innovative tactics to eradicate infodemics. Importantly, media outlets and social media users should exercise prudence before communicating and disseminating information, especially in the age of COVID-19.