Pandemic v/s Infodemic: Tackling the Devil and the Deep Sea

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Just within the past two decades, coronavirus has made the third ‘highly virulent’ leap from animals to humans; first SARS, then MERS and now, the pandemic COVID-19. At a pace never achieved in medical history, within two months, scientists had at hand the complete sequence of the RNA genome of the culprit – the novel coronavirus (renamed SARS-CoV2, citing relatedness to its prior cousins). Travellers who migrated out of China carried the virus with them to the rest of the world. Although the disease reached India only by late February, the W.H.O. had taken cognizance of the rapid spread across Europe and America and declared it a ‘pandemic’. Many returned home from abroad and transited out of the epicentres: Delhi and Mumbai. With no cure at hand, lack of information about this new virus that we had never encountered before, and with no means to curtail the spread, entire countries went into lockdown. Indians too were confined to their homes since 25th March 2020. I recap how a handful of us started a democratic model of voluntary scientists (ISRC-Indian Scientists Response to COVID-19, IndSciCov.in) to brainstorm on how we understand current and emerging scientific information and present it to the common masses, providing them with informed tools on how to battle the pandemic.

The invisible enemy – misinformation: Otherwise dedicated within the four walls of their labs, scientists too, quickly adapted to online spaces; keeping in touch with researchers, students, family and friends alike. The fear of the unknown sent, even the intellectuals into an irrational frenzy. Social media immediately went abuzz with all kinds of information! Our conservative brain, in an urge to protect the self, generated a collective tsunami of information from WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc. on How to prevent the spread? While scientists were scrambling to design double-blinded randomized controlled clinical trials to find an effective drug/vaccine, the internet already claimed to have known several cures. While some relied on the coziness of grandma’s recipes; the warm cup of herbal tea or Kaadha, others touted untested “miracle cures” from pre-existing alternate and traditional medicines. What was the catch here? Without having done a single test on the novel coronavirus – How did they already know that the proposed therapy would be curative? 

Forming ISRC: Here we had a virus that humankind had never encountered before, and yet, we already knew what could eliminate it? While the tsunami of misinformation had already begun, the second wave of scientific information was building up. Within five months, more than twenty thousand papers were published on COVID-19 alone! The “Infodemic” clearly had two faces. Severed from our daily rigmarole of laboratory experimentation, many of us started connecting to these issues in our capacities. Soon it became clear that a collective effort was necessary. That is why more than 500 scientists, postdocs and graduate students voluntarily came together to form a  group online as the ISRC. The aim was to tackle the devil by both its horns. One arm of the group would take on the barrage of scientific data being churned out, and synthesize it into the good, the bad, and the ugly;. At the same time, the other would try to make this information palatable to the layman, in a way that they could understand and use it in their daily lives. Since personal belief systems led to building ‘solutions’, We aimed to provide an India-specific platform to help sift through ‘What is the evidence’ versus what is simply ‘An internet-hoax’. Neither was going to be easy. 

The Scientific process – a battle within us: The altruistic strength of ISRC was the heterogeneity of its experts. The ownership was upon each biologist, doctor, chemist, physicist, mathematician, sociologist and even digital artist and science journalist, who just wanted to make a difference. Although we had a common goal, the real battle was arriving at that common consensus – What should the message be? Each hoax or claim went through cycles of discussion and critique where both sides were heard. Truly representative of this reiterative process of a scientific query, no singular research study or paper becomes the gospel truth unless supported by several other research studies that either replicate it or demonstrate its continuity with pre-existing knowledge. It is, therefore, not surprising that Nobel prizes take long to materialize, most even decades after the seminal finding was made. One early battle was the accusation that a “Chinese Virus” had escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. This viral message not only targeted people from the north-east but also stigmatised those who had alternate meat-eating habits. Of course, it is impossible to put to rest a conspiracy theory that hinders entirely on the ‘what if…?’ argument. Yet, analyses of more than 8000 independently sequenced genomes of SARS-CoV2 (all of which is freely available online) and independent publications in reputed peer-reviewed journals (Nature and Science), demonstrated that this virus was an evolutionary jump from a yet unidentified animal host (likely from bats, pangolins or civets) to humans (Hoax#18). Again, modern science’s reiterative process built its mountain of evidence, not from one case study or key paper, but multiple sources of validated data analysis, open to scrutiny by the public eye. ISRC learned to navigate this evidence-based path, via baby steps, without falling prey to conspiracy theories.

The battle with scientists: Conspiracy theorists would continue to base their claims on contested evidence or poorly interpreted science. Just as there are good and bad chefs, science also suffers the misgivings of human shortcomings. Shouldn’t we, therefore, put the bad science under the guillotine as well? This is where reiterative discussions of published literature on two online groups of the ISRC indeed did the job: Hoaxbusters and Lit-Combers. Science enthusiasts critiqued the quality of the data in each paper and the message therein to generate composite points. Author-mentor pairs assigned to specific Hoaxes and QnAs used this information to resynthesise an output that would be layman-friendly. However, the looming question was: how to designate a hoax as ‘false’ or ‘most likely’ to be false? Although strangely simple to a layperson, when scientists convert science into popular communication, they can tear each other down at an affirmative dogma – not to emulate a godman. Intense discussions were therefore aimed to attain a balance between oversimplification and maintaining the accuracy of the communication. This forced us to step down from the ivory towers of ‘Scientific English’ to enable each other as better science communicators. 

Humility in messaging: In an active pandemic, the evidence on the ground changed every day. Some queries had direct scientific evidence to help rule out ambiguities. Preventive measures of mask-wearing, handwashing and physical distancing were amply repeated. Yet, the absence of a concrete cure or vaccine against COVID-19 was glaring. Much of the societal belief in alternative medicine attempted to fill these gaps. Our conservative brain wants to take active measures to protect against damage. That “there is nothing we can do” would seem counterproductive as a message. It was, therefore, essential to be sensitive to such limitations in popular communication and distinguish between bonafide cures and grandma’s recipes that gave symptomatic relief. Sifting through clinical trials about such ‘remedies’ and learning from human experiences, helped portray ‘home-remedies’ as inclusive healthy options, as long as they are not touted as a ‘miracle cure’.

The battle with society: Vilified by decades of Hollywood stigma as the blood-sucking Count Dracula’s motif, pandemic added to the bat’s woes. SARS-CoV2 had jumped from the bats, and this backfired as a social frenzy towards the little mammal. People started felling large trees harbouring bat-colonies, forcing them to roost on the next available one. This was cyclically very damaging to the already strained urban ecosystems. SARS-CoV2 took at least months, if not years, of host-pathogen co-habitation to make that leap, probably via a third intermediary host. The fear of direct transmission in real-time, from bats to people was a gross misunderstanding of this zoonotic jump. In fact, not only do bats perform pest control, but also act as pollinators of flowering plants. This scientifically sound message by ISRC was popularly received. Several ecologists, scientists and media came out in support of our little friend. One step at a time, a stitch in time saves nine. 

Acceptance by society: We were not restrained to one institute, one city, or one region – ISRC was a virtual platform operating from all parts of digital India. In order to get the message out, we created short “WhatsApp-able” content. This materialized as a collaborative effort with a voluntary team of digital artists and translators from 17 different languages. Within three weeks of inception, ISRC was able to release 18 hoax-buster messages across social media. We attempted to fill the void of accurate information in multiple regional languages. Our infographics were widely used in webinars, even by the Department of Biotechnology (GOI). Besides online dissemination and sending our infographics to several NGOs and media, some of us also distributed pamphlets to village elders eager to disseminate the information. This is where our geographical diversity blossomed! Our social media teams set up Facebook, Twitter accounts and a YouTube channel, through which we provided short video productions in multiple languages by our team members. Involvement in different capacities highlighted the creativity and ownership of this unfunded project, by each member of ISRC.

Our learnings: In the middle of an economic catastrophe, when small businesses were struggling to stay afloat, and lakhs of migrant labourers left cities to return to their villages, we saw the disease bare its ugliest face. Taking advantage of India’s recent telecom prowess and reach, we countered the very media that spread the misinformation, through our e-messaging platforms. 

We wanted everyone to appreciate that the scientific process is different from dogmatic or religious prophecies. Highlighting this, we changed our old stances when new evidence emerged; we morphed our pitch on the “Pet-Hoax” which was updated to inform pet-owners to be careful about their non-human family members as well. Similarly, when the World Health Organization (WHO) changed its stance on mask-wearing practices or airborne spread of the virus, the common perception was a loss-of-faith in their ‘flip-flop’ messaging. The fear of the unknown, as well as personal bias, has aligned us with messages that rather profess absolute truth, than an informed critique that is open to change. Are we witnessing a new phenomenon due to the ‘personalized journalism’ of Social Media? Or is this a rather deep-rooted fallacy emerging from the rote-learning practices encouraged by our education systems, which in turn alienated many from science, leaving them vulnerable to dogmatic belief? Popularising how the reiterative process of modern science works seems to play an essential part in making us think more scientifically – one of the eleven tenets that every Indian citizen is coaxed to follow, by our very own Constitution. 

Misinformation was largely rooted in the usage of technical words to make things sound ‘scientific’ by some. “Theory” in scientific terminology comes from a vast body of unfalsified evidence and is completely different from “theoretically speaking…” in conversational English. Not only do pseudo-scientific messages dilute the real scientific efforts and endanger us in times of crisis, but also lead to widespread belief in improbable ‘myths’, such as, when the ‘theory of evolution’ is questioned because after all, it’s only a theory! Scientists today have an ever-growing responsibility to undo these misunderstandings. ISRC collectively enabled us to help fellow citizens protect their children and elders from both misinformation and the novel coronavirus, both contagions nevertheless.