How the US and Greece are losing the battle against misinformation

by Salome Dermati,

What we think we know about coronavirus is what is actually harming us. At no other time in recent history has misinformation played such a key role and has had such a devastating effect than during the current pandemic. Ever since the outbreak in late 2019, people were quick to dismiss the crisis as a local and geographically limited problem. “It was about them, not us.” “It was never going to affect the ‘civilized West.’” These voices have been proven wrong; yet we are still struggling to listen to science and follow its guidelines. This is evident all over the globe – in Brazil, Russia, Iran, the US, and Greece.

As COVID-19 continues to claim thousands of lives, a wave of angry and vocal protesters have taken to the streets and to online platforms to downplay the crisis. Some draw attention to “fake media”, accusing it of creating another hoax. Others come up with imaginative conspiracy theories, blaming the 5G network, pigeon-spies, “Africa,” or, broadly speaking, the “East.” A third “analysis” describes a man-made disease that is set to “help” the already overpopulated and suffering planet Earth.

In the US, a growing number of people have been protesting against the isolation measures. Large crowds in Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio are demanding the respect of their constitutional right to liberty, labor, haircuts, and Dunkin Donuts. They associate the pandemic with Communism and China or outright deny the existence of any such disease. They self-identify as “pro-choice” and advocate against vaccines. They have, indeed, adopted their President’s message that “the cure is worse than the problem”.

Even more disturbingly, a new and potentially dangerous claim has been endorsed by scientists, the media, and political leaders. After an experiment was conducted on COVID-19 patients in Marseille, France, its report suggested that a cure for the virus had been found. The physicians and doctors behind it allege that the use of hydroxychloroquine provided a “100% cure rate.” The drug at hand has been used to fight malaria and autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or arthritis, but is not yet sufficiently proven to help fight coronavirus.

As soon as the news of the experiment reached the US, two self-proclaimed experts were responsible for the rapid and widespread hype of the drug. After one of them appeared on Fox News on March 18th, the channel embraced this farce and referred to hydroxychloroquine a hundred times over three days. Soon after that, Donald Trump, the US president, picked up the idea and distributed the false allegations in his daily briefings. What he didn’t know, however, was that one person had died, three patients had been moved to the ICU, and two others had left the experiment. This information had been deliberately excluded from any official report. What is more, following Trump’s suggestions, the demand for the drug rose immensely, leading to shortages in the country. Unfortunately, some people have died from poisoning themselves, after taking a similarly spelled chemical or overdosing from hydroxychloroquine. So to answer Trump’s question, “What do you have to lose?” – a lot.

Even if we accept that the President’s intentions were good or justified, we should not forget his extended track record of inaccuracies, deception, and dishonesty. The administration’s handling of the public health crisis has been criticized from the beginning when Trump insisted on comparing coronavirus to the seasonal flu and avoided the implementation of stricter measures so as to protect the economy. Today, more than 20 million citizens have filed for unemployment and more than 40,000 people have lost their life.

Moving 9,431 km to Greece, things are better, but not good. We may not have seen such heroic acts of defiance, yet people are growing more tired and uncomfortable after six weeks in quarantine. Good weather has favored a short walk to the nearest coffee place or kiosk. While most citizens seem to approve of the government’s measures to different extents, a lurking minority contends that Greeks are immune to such illnesses.

The most prominent cause of disinformation in the European state is the Church of Greece. It has contributed immensely to reassuring the people by arguing that the virus cannot be transmitted through the blessed sacrament (θεία κοινωνία). A professor of infectious diseases at the University of Athens propounded that same statement in early March. After that, there was only so much the Prime Minister could do to convince us not to go to church during these difficult times.

As soon as April arrived, things took a turn for the worse, because of Easter being celebrated, the most important religious holiday for Orthodox Christianity. As expected, many believers once again raised their voices and vehemently declared that their religious liberties should be disrespected no more, especially during this holy period. The priests listened, agreed, and soon we saw pictures of them illegally holding services in multiple churches all over Greece.

Many conclusions can be drawn based on the latest developments in both countries, concerning the relationship between citizens and institutions that exert authority, meaning the state, the media, the Church, and the experts. The pandemic is weakening the government’s ability to implement its agenda, boosting fake news, radicalizing and dividing believers, and shutting out scientists. Little room is left for compassion, solidarity, respect, and honesty. It is hard to remain optimistic when fear is taking over, but we should not turn our backs to our fellow citizens and endanger whole communities. This is our chance to unequivocally prove that we are more than labels and parties and that we can set aside our differences and think about something more than our own interest, even just for once.

We must wake up soon, however, because time is running out.

 

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