COVID-19 will debilitate not only the health of our bodies, but of our information landscapes, our economy and our society

As I type this (Sunday 1st March), I still do not know personally of anyone who has become infected with the COVID-19 virus (or coronavirus), but according to James Hamblin, writing in The Atlantic on 24th February, it can only be a matter of time. He quotes epidemologist Marc Lipsitch who predicts that within a year from now, 40 to 70 per cent of everyone around the world may have become infected at some point. The great majority (so we are told) will become only mildly ill from this, or even be asymptomatic, that is, carry the virus without exhibiting symptoms. As Lipsitch (and Hamblin) point out, this is the very characteristic of COVID-19 that will make it so hard to contain. How can one do one’s duty to one’s neighbours if an infected person might genuinely not even feel ill enough to stay home from work?

The coronavirus seen through a microscope

Yet there is vast political pressure to achieve exactly that: containment. Even with a low mortality rate, the apparently high infectivity means the death toll is likely to be substantial, and every government will be keen to play down the economic and social impact of the disease, to show that it remains authoritative and ‘in control’. The tactics consequently being used, and proposed, to this end range from the possible cancellation of the summer’s major sporting events (the Olympics and Euro 2020), the closure of schools and public entertainment venues, to the outright closure of borders and the banning of the movement of people, even internally. In China (as Hamblin reports), at least 100 million people are effectively under house arrest.

This comes at a time when far-right demagogues such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson (there seems little reason not to place either one at well towards that end of the spectrum), and their media mouthpieces, are already stoking anti-immigrant and anti-freedom sentiments to appeal to their respective power bases. As Peter Nicholas, also writing in The Atlantic on Feb. 18th, mused; this outbreak will doubtless bring out the worst in Trump, as the US President is a man with plenty of form when it comes to ignoring or mocking any information not in his own personal interest.

But it is not just those in such powerful positions, whether in the US, Europe, China or elsewhere, who matter when it comes to shaping world opinion on COVID-19. Writers on politics have long noted that ‘power’ is far from being something that is only asserted from the top down. Michel Foucault, for one, observed how power was generated from the very smallest interactions between people, being generated from the ways that words were used, ideas and influence spread. The unknown person who sent an email on around February 20th that, whether deliberately or not, falsely claimed that evacuees from China were returning to Ukraine with the virus sparked a riot at the town of Novy Sanzhary, where they were to be quarantined. (A more positive aspect of the story was that to show solidarity with the evacuees, Ukraine’s Health Minister, Zoryana Skaletska, joined them in quarantine and said she would run her ministry from there by Skype and phone.)

Armed police were needed to quell the riot in Ukraine [picture from Reuters via the BBC web site]
As writer Carl Miller tweeted — this demonstrates very clearly that disinformation matters: it can create active and direct threats to human life. In Novy Sanzhary, through the violence of the rioters; more broadly, through the impact of disinformation on the co-ordinated global response that will be required to minimise the impact of the outbreak. Omer Benjakob, writing in Wired on 9th February, recounts how Wikipedia has become a key battleground, having both positive and negative effects on the flow of information about COVID-19:

As soon as the crisis kicked off, people flocked to Wikipedia to read about the virus and its potential risks, turning to the online encyclopedia for bits of trusted information that would often be shared on social media. Wikipedia’s map of confirmed cases, for example, was circulated on Twitter, and citizen scientists used its list of known cases to create data visualisations about the outbreak. On Reddit, users cited figures from Wikipedia while discussing the virus’s mortality rates. In short, Wikipedia has become central in how the ongoing health crisis is processed and discussed online. The flip-side of that is that Wikipedia’s free-to-edit, open format can be easily used to spread disinformation.

Wikipedia’s team of editors who specialise in medical issues have therefore been kept busy recently. As have other experts like Syra Madad, from the New York City Special Pathogens Program, and Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, who featured in a YouTube video that debunked various COVID-19 myths, to name but two members of a knowledge community whose collective expertise has rapidly become more prominent in recent weeks. But even among this expert community there have been difficulties with information flows. China’s present government is not one characterised by its openness, and The Times HE reported on Feb. 7th that researchers around the globe were increasingly critical of its handling of the informational aspects of the outbreak.

Stephen Morse and Syra Hadad debunk a few myths (like the one depicted)

The overall impression given is that COVID-19 has infected more than just the physiology of its human hosts. Its debilitating impacts on our informational sphere, on our collective psychology and ability to learn, are also already apparent. Many of those quarantined will, like Ukraine’s admirable health minister, be able to keep up their working lives, but many others will not, and the retail, tourism, entertainment and sports sectors — oh yes, and education — will all take a massive economic hit across the globe. Thus, the virus is likely to debilitate us financially too.

The point is that ‘quality of life’ in the 21st century depends on a complex, tangled skein of flows: of people, capital, consumer goods, information and ideas, or what Richard Dawkins first named ‘memes’. Along with the atmosphere, hydrosphere (water), lithosphere (rock) and the biosphere (life), humans have enveloped the globe in a noösphere, or sphere of the mind — a phrase first attributed to the philosopher (though some would say, mystic) Teilhard de Chardin. This sphere is intangible, but it has very real effects on the world, as ideas, data, information and knowledge all drive physical processes like environmental change and the fall and rise of species (like viruses) and ecosystems. In turn, our use of the world’s resources, whether sustainably or not, and how the benefits and pathologies of this usage are distributed and then play out, affect the composition of the noösphere and its structures (information landscapes). COVID-19 is creating a health crisis, but this is — intrinsically, and in every way simultaneously — an informational crisis, an economic crisis, and a political crisis.

Not all crises result in damage to the structures of society, at least, not in the long term. But if such negative impacts are to be avoided, the world needs good, reliable and up-to-date information, and to be making informed judgments about it. All in all, it needs information literate behaviour; scrutiny of what is being said, by whom and why, and this scrutiny to be asserted from many different perspectives. Yet in an era where a top UK government minister, Michael Gove, declared on national television that “the British people have had enough of experts” — can we truly call this an information literate government?

The world may be about to find out just how robust its information landscapes really are.

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