Spreading harmful misinformation about Covid-19 is one of the most effective ways to make sure we fail to defeat the virus, writes Joel Rindelaub

It feels surreal.

We worked so hard for so long to beat the virus. We made sacrifices for the good of the team, and we came out on top. Now, after a single late-night emergency press conference, our victory celebration has been put on pause.

The coronavirus is back in our community, and it is once again going to take a collective effort to defend its attack. We need to stay strong, we need to keep focused, and – most importantly – we need to listen to our experts.

The lockdown is going to be much harder this time around. Along with dread, fatigue, and myriad other emotions, we are faced with another new challenge: misinformation.

I can forgive anyone who hasn’t been following overseas reactions to the virus. We have had the luxury of going about our day-to-day lives without the constant worry of an invisible, non-living packet of genetic code that can render our flesh machines functionless. It’s been nice.

But the virus has reached over 20 million people worldwide, assisted by distrust in scientists and health professionals.

There is a vocal anti-mask movement, which claims against all scientific rationale that a simple piece of fabric is designed to both hurt and control us. There are faulty cures for Covid-19 in the mix, and baseless attacks on prominent scientists. And there are numerous conspiracy theories floating around that have found plenty of minds to infect.

Here in New Zealand, we are not immune to distortion. Just this week at the National Party’s press conference, the deputy of the opposition, Gerry Brownlee, openly insinuated that the latest Covid-19 cases are a government conspiracy

This is dangerous.

Misinformation like this divides us. It distracts us from a common goal, and it erodes our vigilance. We need our entire squad of 5 million on the same page because it only takes one arsonist to start a fire. Just ask South Korea.

The second and third waves of a pandemic can often be the most deadly, as was the case with the 1918 Spanish Flu. To avoid repeating history, we need to stick to the game plan that works: listening to our experts.

Despite this resurgence happening so close to the election, this is not a political issue. This is a public health crisis, and we must heed the advice of our public health figures, like Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

In Auckland, that means staying home and, if you do need to go out, wearing a mask. A word of caution about masks: they are not going to give you 100 percent protection but they may give you a false sense of security. Be careful. Masks may help stop the spread of the virus but they aren’t perfect, especially the homemade cloth varieties. As Bloomfield has said, observe social and physical distancing whenever possible.

Our success in overcoming the virus last time around was a direct result of how well we complied with the proposed health guidelines. During the Level 4 lockdown, traffic to recreational and retail locations was down 91 percent. That is an amazing feat, something that we should be proud of – and strive to replicate.

I know there may be some people out there thinking, “Why did we need to go so hard so early? Look at the result from last time. We were fine”. These individuals might even point to a country like Sweden and champion their response to the virus.

This is faulty logic. The reason things (mostly) turned out fine is because we collectively obeyed the strict measures in place. If we were to ignore the rules of the lockdown and go about our lives, it would be like throwing away an umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm because we weren’t getting wet.

As far as the comparison to Sweden, it’s too early to tell which strategy will prove to be the “best”. That will take years. Currently, some scientists believe Sweden is not close to herd immunity, and they are unsure how long Covid-19 immunity lasts. Meanwhile, Sweden has had one of the highest death rates per capita in the world, even worse than the United States.

Remember, New Zealand has very few medical resources in comparison to other countries. If we had similar rates of infections as Europe, we would have run out of intensive care beds and ventilators by April.

New Zealand is also being cautious because there are serious concerns about long-term side effects from infection, like the heart problems that have caused sporting leagues in the US to suspend play

Thus, it is in the interest of all New Zealanders to defeat the virus. In doing so, we need to be aware of harmful misinformation and stick to the advice of our health professionals. If we follow the recommended guidelines, together we can once again return to our winning ways.

Joel Rindelaub, Ph.D. is a freelance writer and Research Fellow at the University of Auckland.

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