Desperate times call for desperate measures. The epidemic of the new coronavirus has forced the world to take unprecedented action, which is slowly producing results. Fighting another virus – disinformation and the subsequent panic – is much more difficult.

“I am physically and mentally exhausted,” a friend living in northern Italy recently wrote to me. Working as a doctor at a local hospital, she is on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus, which killed almost 2,000 people in Italy alone until last Sunday. “Many of the sick are young people. We can’t cure everyone,” I read in a message that ends “Pray for us.”

When the number of SARS-CoV-2 (also known as COVID-19) infected people in Italy increased by 1,700 in just one day, the government decided to introduce traffic restrictions for 60 million citizens. Italians have heard that they must stay in their homes and go out only for urgent health and professional reasons. Schools, universities, cinemas and theatres have been closed.

“There will be no more red zones. There will be Italy, Italy as a protected zone” – said the head of the government, Giuseppe Conte. A few days later, bars, restaurants and cafes were also closed, a move which surprisingly was not considered at first.

Extraordinary steps in connection with the epidemic have also been taken by other countries. In Iran, an unprecedented decision was made to cancel Friday prayers, Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to Mecca, Islam’s holiest place. The President of the United States announced a controversial suspension of travel from Europe and later a nationwide state of emergency.

The old continent

Visegrad Group leaders

When the epidemic hit the old continent harder, the EU countries joined the action, although not immediately. Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia have introduced temporary border controls. From closed nurseries, schools or cultural institutions, cancelled mass events are today a reality with which are struggling, among others, Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Spaniards and the French.

Interestingly, President Emmanuel Macron decided not to postpone local elections last Sunday, even though the number of infected in France is dramatically increasing (many French did not go to the polls, and the turnout was at a record low). In Poland, the debate about a possible postponement of the May presidential elections continues.

The strategy of the UK is most surprising, given that it still has not banned the gatherings due to the coronavirus even though the number of infected people in the country already exceeds a 1,000. Central European governments have reacted much faster than their Western European partners. For example, the closure of schools in Poland was announced before the number of confirmed cases exceeded 50; in France, the decision was made when more than 2,000 were infected.

The Czech Republic’s state of emergency due to coronavirus was introduced when the infection was detected in 104 people, Poland declared a state of “epidemic emergency” when 68 confirmed cases were reported. The Spanish government decided to take a similar step only when the number of infected exceeded 6,000. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, announcing the closure of schools, said: “We want to avoid what happened in Italy at all costs.” A similar rhetoric, “do not repeat the mistakes of the Italians”, is used by the Polish authorities.

The European Commission indicates that EU countries are showing a “generally high level of preparation” to fight the coronavirus, but experts at the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet are much more critical. “There is now a real danger that countries have done too little, too late to contain the epidemic,” said The Lancet in early March, just before an avalanche of new restrictions in Europe was launched.

Deep concern

Shortly after, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. At the same time, the WHO said that they were “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction” by of some countries in the fight against the virus. No one has pointed the finger at any country, but it is an open secret that it was, among others, Italy, that did not take the threat seriously at the beginning and resisted drastic measures. Such measures were taken at one point by China, criticised only two months ago for trying to cover up the first traces of the virus and silence the doctor who tried to sound the alarm.

When the epidemic could no longer be hidden, the authorities of the Middle Kingdom mobilised the entire state apparatus to “people’s fight” against the virus. The city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, has been quarantined, traffic restrictions have been introduced for millions of citizens and foreigners, special clinics and huge isolation centres have been built for those under quarantine.

The home quarantine that is used today in Europe has been abandoned as most infections have occurred in families. The Bank of China even started to clean the banknotes. Penalties were also introduced for those who did not comply with the authorities’ guidelines. Beijing now reports with satisfaction that the scale of daily infections has significantly decreased from almost two thousand to less than a hundred.

The question is whether the numbers given by the Chinese are true. If they lied at the beginning of the epidemic, why not now? The WHO, however, seems to believe in their assurances, praising Beijing for its ‘aggressive’ actions. “There is no doubt that China’s bold approach to the new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly spreading and still deadly epidemic,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO specialist group, which has recently visited China.

According to experts, this “decisive approach” by the Chinese authorities was possible not only by mobilising equipment and medical staff but also by the conviction of Chinese society, which 17 years ago passed the SARS epidemic, that such situations should be taken very seriously because the health of the whole nation depends on the responsible behaviour of citizens.

All this in an authoritarian country where orders are not challenged. In democratic countries such a belief is not always obvious. An example – again – may be the Italians, who, as the media remind us, take a loose approach towards regulations.

Another virus

There is no doubt that desperate times call for desperate measures. The problem is serious, and nobody denies it, maybe except for President Donald Trump, who not so long ago compared COVID-19 to the common flu. But when doctors and authorities try to fight the virus of a particular disease, another virus – of disinformation and panic – multiplies and feeds on the fears of millions of people, making it difficult for medical services to really fight the threat.

When plans to quarantine Lombardy leaked to Italian media before the government officially announced the decision, thousands of people tried to flee the region. “Such messages create uncertainty, a sense of insecurity and chaos, and we cannot tolerate it,” Prime Minister Conte said. In other countries, for fear of introducing similar restrictions, people started to prepare for the worst.

In Australia and Canada, toilet paper suddenly began to disappear from shop shelves. In Poland, sugar, groats or pasta started to be bought out en masse and there were queues for a few dozen minutes. The WHO recommends that we avoid news that makes us anxious, but it is hard to cut ourselves off from such news, especially considering that coronavirus is the number one topic of all media and social networking sites.

False information

Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission

In addition to the necessary factual comments and information on the development of the situation, there are many untrue reports and conspiracy theories that may increase panic in society. As is often the case, they are mainly supported by the pro-Kremlin media.

“Examples of disinformation include false treatments that can put health at risk (for example, drinking bleach to kill the virus, or applying vinegar to the nose to avoid infection), as well as false sources and ways of spreading the virus,” said EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova.

East StratCom, a dedicated expert group on detection and disclosure of fake news, lists numerous examples of stories that knowingly mislead people. For example, the Antifascist Info Agency reported that the coronavirus was stolen from Canadian laboratories by Chinese spies. According to RT Arabic SARS-CoV-2 is a secret biological weapon, targeting US opponents like China and Iran. The same station claims that Americans have had a vaccine against the virus for 3 months now.

There is also no shortage of texts about the fact that the coronavirus threat is deliberately exaggerated in order to divert attention from difficult subjects, such as Brexit, or that there is really no epidemic at all, and all the numbers and data are fabricated.

The new virus has put social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in a state of increased vigilance: they have identified thousands of accounts giving false information. According to Blackbird, about 40 per cent of tweets on COVID-19 are artificially ‘pumped’ conspiracy theories online. The problem does not only concern the Russian-speaking part of the Internet.

One of the frequently reported theories that the virus is a Chinese (no longer American) biological weapon has appeared in 56 languages. The Republican senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton and former advisor to President Trump Steve Bannon contributed to its dissemination. One of the most absurd theories was presented by Joanne Wright, a GOP-endorsed congressional candidate, who in social media blamed Bill Gates, George Soros and Pope Francis for the development of the epidemic.

On the Polish Internet, fake news tells us it is enough to drink water every 15 minutes, to drink alcohol and to take cocaine to avoid the virus infection (explained in a recent media report by Press Service Monitoring Mediów and Publicon). The message that Warsaw will be cut off from the world due to the virus has also become popular in recent days and has been denied several times by the Polish government.

Fertile ground

Although most of these theories cannot be taken seriously, it is worth remembering that people tend to believe in conspiracy theories. A YouGov study in 2019 shows that 15 per cent of Poles, 20 per cent of Germans and 18 per cent of Italians believe that the American government “knowingly helped to make the 9/11 terrorist attacks happen in America on 11 September 2001.” In turn, 21 per cent of French, 35 per cent of Spanish and 28 per cent of Poles agree with the statement that “regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organisations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.”

Despite the efforts of social networking sites and the work of experts, who are constantly exposing fake news, the speed of their spread precedes the coronavirus epidemic itself. There is a reason why conspiracy theories are finding fertile ground in times of uncertainty and danger when people are trying to understand what is happening in a chaotic world.

Then they are ready to believe the lies sewn with the thickest thread. And the next action leads to a reaction. In hysteria, shop storming begins, the search for an antidote is hastened, and everything is accompanied by the psychosis of the ubiquitous plague (“Can I get the coronavirus by eating Chinese food?”).

Meanwhile, as Toronto’s infectious diseases expert Dr Adbu Sharkawy, argues, instead of panic and fear one should simply keep a common sense. “I implore you all. Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education.” – Sharkawy wrote in a viral post in social media. “Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts. Our children will thank us for it.” – summed up in a message that was being shared almost two million times.

After all, how quickly the virus can be defeated depends not only on the decision of the authorities or the actions of doctors but also – maybe above all – on the responsibility of ordinary people.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It is written under a pseudonym.

 

Julia Jabłońska

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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