COVID Is a Political Virus: Misinformation Spreads Diseases

Why combatting misinformation is important to slow the spread of COVID.

Posted Nov 12, 2020

Sometimes a virus spreads as an aerosol through the air. And sometimes a virus spreads through political misinformation. COVID does both.

How COVID-19 spreads has become more clear over time. When we touch surfaces, we can leave behind or pick up the virus. More importantly, droplets and aerosols appear to be the most common method of virus spread. People coughing, talking, singing, and even simply breathing. We all release droplets and aerosols. The COVID-19 coronovirus hitches a ride on your breath, landing on surfaces and flying into the noses, mouths, and lungs of other people. For this reason, public health experts have recommended physical distance, hand washing, and cleaning surfaces. They have emphasized the importance of testing and tracing, of isolation and quarantines. They have noted the difference between being inside with poor air circulation and outside with better air circulation. The risks increase as the number people and amount of time exposure increase.

Wearing a mask is one of the most important behaviors to decrease the spread of COVID-19. But not everyone is wearing a mask. Some people argue vehemently against wearing a mask. And various places around the United States have different ideas about the need to limit gatherings in indoor spaces such as restaurants, bars, schools, and churches. These differences mean that the spread of the virus isn’t equal.

Why don’t people follow basic public health advice? Because of the spread of a different virus – misinformation. Many sources of misinformation deny the value of wearing a mask. People have been told that the risks are low, so reopening every activity is fine, and actually important. Some areas have not advised limiting crowds and indoor interactions.

You can find the COVID-19 misinformation everywhere. But in a new study, the largest source of misinformation appears to be a single individual: President Trump (Evanega et al., 2020). President Trump has spread misinformation about how contagious and dangerous the virus is. About possible cures, most of which have not worked out. About his desire to decrease testing. About the usefulness of wearing a mask.

Just consider one recent example of misinformation. According to some people, COVID was supposed to disappear after the election. Supposedly, the concern with COVID was to harm President Trump’s re-election chances. But the threat did not end with the election. Obviously, instead of disappearing, COVID cases are continuing to increase. This misinformation was spread by conservative leaders associated with the leadership of the U.S. government (you can read this Forbes commentary on this issue). You may have encountered it through social media – I certainly saw some posts making this argument. What’s really disturbing is that even as cases have continued to dramatically increase in the time since the election, some people have said that the virus has disappeared as they predicted – completely denying reality and putting people at risk. As this single piece of misinformation indicates, COVID is a misinformation pandemic and well as a viral plague. And the misinformation is aiding the spread of the virus.

The relationship between politics and COVID misinformation has resulted in a predictable pattern of disease spread. Early on, the disease spread was based on travel patterns. Places with international travelers were early to suffer from the spread of COVID. The disease then spread from those places to other parts of the U.S. But eventually, that first and the second wave were partially controlled. In the new surge of cases, the misinformation surge is important. Counties that have the highest case levels during this third surge tend to be the counties that voted most strongly for Trump. As noted in an AP news article, surveys have indicated that Trump voters expressed less concern about the virus and less support for public health recommendations such as mask wearing. Politics have put people at risk of adopting misinformation and spreading COVID.

You can see the link between public health and politics in the U.S. election campaign. President-Elect Biden wore a mask and used physical distancing. President Trump did not wear a mask and disdained physical distancing for his crowds. Stanford economists conducted an analysis of the likely number of cases and deaths caused by Trump rallies (see the New York Times article on this). Their estimate linked 30,000 cases and more than 700 deaths to Trump rallies (see the initial report by Bernheim et al., 2020). Of course, there have also been at least two instances of COVID spreader events centered at White House events.

COVID doesn’t care about your politics. It doesn’t choose conservatives or liberals to infect. It doesn’t care if you live in an urban environment or a rural community. COVID spreads based on behaviors. And when you adopt misinformation, that clearly increases risky behaviors.

My basic point is simple. Trust the public health experts. Follow their advice. In part, this means being wary of information from people who aren’t experts. We need to all understand that misinformation is spreading rampantly. And the spread of that misinformation is dangerous.

Misinformation is always dangerous. Adopting misinformation has led to numerous false convictions. Misinformation can lead people to make bad judgments about both financial decisions and health treatments. The COVID misinformation is particularly risky. The misinformation is contributing to the spread of COVID-19, which is putting thousands of lives at risk and killing people.

But if we follow the recommendations of the experts, we can slowly reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please wear a mask, wash your hands, limit gatherings (particularly indoors), and maintain physical distance in your interactions with others.

References

Evanega, S., Lynas, M., Adams, J., Smolenyak, K., & Insights, C. G. (2020). Coronavirus misinformation: quantifying sources and themes in the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’.

Bernheim, B. D., Buchmann, N., Freitas-Groff, Z., & Otero, S. (2020, October). The Effects of Large Group Meetings on the Spread of COVID-19: The Case of Trump Rallies. In Nina and Freitas-Groff, Zach and Otero, Sebastián, The Effects of Large Group Meetings on the Spread of COVID-19: The Case of Trump Rallies (October 30, 2020).