WHO Fights Fake News on COVID-19

By Maya Plentz

 United Nations, 4th February 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding its Executive Board meeting this week.

They are also discussing the coronavirus outbreak.

WHO is updating the press corps in Geneva daily on the ravages of the coronavirus.

Dr. Sylvie Briand, who is the director of the Global Infectious Hazards Preparedness, the department that deals with epidemic issues at the WHO, held a press briefing to address the question of misinformation.  Dr. Briand said that outbreaks are now always accompanied by fast spreading “infodemics”. It is a new reality in the 21rst Century, with amplification vectors that are almost impossible to contain.

WHO has also launched a platform to communicate with various stakeholders to tailor messages that counter false information, EPI-WIN,  and they are organizing events to communicate directly with business leaders on what precautions to take and how to guide their employees.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for science and facts to lead the narratives and tweeted to invite news organisations and the general public to refer to the WHO site for reliable information on the coronavirus outbreak and on the containment efforts by the Chinese government.

The UN Representative from China in Geneva gave an exclusive press briefing last week to UN-based correspondents, to address questions regarding the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), also called for science and facts to be amplified to drown down the spread of misinformation.

Such declarations have great economic impact and ramifications, and were the result of a consensus reached by the group of independent experts that advise the WHO Director-General in such matters.

According to sources close to the WHO leadership, in the case of China, a country with resources, it is quite delicate to declare such international emergencies, given the broader economic impact and to avoid unnecessary panic.

China has acted swiftly, building pop-up hospitals and making the necessary adjustments by imposing a costly travel ban in the epicenter of the outbreak, during one of the most important celebrations in the Chinese calendar. But people are travelling. There was no way that this would stay within China for very long. For business travellers Wuhan is an important hub, not least for its hardware manufacturing.

But as confirmed reports of cases outside China started coming through, the WHO Director-General group of independent experts, with data gathered from the Center for Disease Control in the US, in consultation with the Chinese government, began using machine learning predictive models, arrived to the consensus that was necessary to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which calls for a set of guidelines that countries have to abide to, regarding reporting of cases and deaths.

The declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern requires that all countries signatories of the WHO conventions follow a clear framework to design their responses to the outbreak. WHO Director-General said he was also concerned with affected countries that did not have the same healthcare infrastructure as China or other developed economies.

Social media platforms have been under attack from all quarters for doing too little to address the spread of misinformation. WHO has partnered with Google SOS alerts to make sure that, when people type coronavirus in the search engine, they will find reliable sources of information.

The coronavirus outbreak is testing social media platforms ability to keep pace with the sheer volume of content that is amplified, by bots and concerted disinformation campaigns, which aim to derail earnest efforts to contain the spread of the virus by official authorities, in China and elsewhere.

What is truly worrisome is that these are concerted efforts by different actors that seek to create chaos by fueling conspiracy theories, sometimes even with the unwitting help of celebrities and so-called influencers.

WHO reports that 40K pieces of news on the #coronavirus were published so far, by today, Tuesday, 4th February. That begs the question of how is one to sift through the sheer volume of information being produced, its reliability, and how is one to address the news media in this new information landscape?

How is the WHO embracing digital transformation to deal with the exponential rise of infodemics? One way is gathering data and making it easily available to the public, media, and policy-makers.

Indeed, data has been put to work everywhere at the UN and its agencies in the last few years, and WHO launched a platform to provide continuous updates, with data from the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China and other WHO country members on the coronavirus rate of infections and reported deaths daily.

It can be accessed here.