The Deadly Effects of COVID-19 Misinformation
Denialism doesn't protect against infection.
Posted Apr 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Earlier this year, celebrity stuntman “Mad” Mike Hughes put his “flat-earther” conspiracy theories to the ultimate test, making another attempt to shoot himself into the troposphere with a homemade steam-powered rocket so that he could evaluate whether the Earth is really round with his own eyes. The attempt ended in tragedy after his rocket ship struck part of the launch assembly on the way up, causing it to take a nosedive after a brief ascent. Hughes died from the impact.
To be sure, there's no stronger demonstration of personal belief conviction than betting one’s life on it. While Hughes may have proven himself more foolhardy than wrong about his flat earth beliefs in the end, some COVID-19 deniers are now demonstrating how belief in misinformation can be both wrong and foolhardy, endangering themselves and those around them in the process.
Last month, Virginia pastor Landon Spradlin died from COVID-19 just two weeks after attending Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans and posting to Facebook dismissing its dangers and claiming that concerns about SARS-CoV-2 amounted to little more than fearmongering. One friend later wrote about how he was not only a victim of COVID-19 but of being duped by its collective disregard by many conservatives and right-wing media pundits.
Karen Sehlke, a Texas mother of two, likewise succumbed to COVID-19 two weeks after posting to Twitter that the fear about the “pandemic” (her quotation marks) amounted to media-driven panic, half-joking that the risk of death was “probably close” to that of “cross-stitching accidents.”
Just this past week, John McDaniel, a 60-year old man from Ohio, died from COVID-19 about a month after calling COVID-19 a “political ploy” and railing against “bullshit” restrictions imposed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. Following his death, his widow penned an open letter lamenting that his earlier statements were based on “not [being] fully aware of the severity of COVID-19” and that after becoming ill and testing positive, he retracted his posts and self-isolated prior to being hospitalized.
Another woman defying stay-at-home orders to attend church services recently told a CNN reporter that she wasn’t concerned about infection because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood.” But despite her obvious faith, the reality is that such denialism doesn't protect against infections like COVID-19. Quite the contrary.
This week, researchers at the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago posted a working paper describing a study (see the summary coverage at Vox) that found that viewers of the Fox News show Hannity were more likely to die from COVID-19 in March than those watching Tucker Carlson Tonight. The hypothesized difference? Sean Hannity has taken a decidedly denialist view of COVID-19 from the start whereas Tucker Carlson preached that COVID-19 should be taken seriously early on, with his comments reportedly prompting the President to do the same.
The gap in the numbers of COVID-19 deaths for Hannity vs. Tucker Carlson Tonight viewers was widest during the third week of March but has since disappeared. Why the lack of any difference now? For one thing, Carlson has backed off from articulating concern over the past several weeks and has instead been arguing to end social distancing and praising public protesters. Meanwhile, across its various shows, Fox News has brought on a parade of celebrity doctors like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew with little to no actual expertise on viral pandemics to offer hot takes about social distancing being an unnecessary and fear-driven overreaction (Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew have subsequently apologized, backpedaled, or qualified their previous comments).
Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but together with the anecdotes of COVID-19 denialists dying and previous research showing that belief in medical conspiracy theories is associated with lower rates of medically-recommended health behaviors,1 these results provide a stark illustration of how believing in and spreading medical misinformation can be deadly.
While it isn’t yet clear just how wide the mortality gap might be between those who believe in the wisdom of shutting down the country in the name of social distancing compared to those who don’t going forward, the reality is that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between believers and non-believers. During a viral pandemic, neither belief nor denialism is a particularly effective talisman to ward off infection compared to the necessity of collective buy-in on preventative measures by society as a whole.
Belief in misinformation always has the potential for harm, and for COVID-19, that harm boils down to lost human lives. But while flaunting medical recommendations always risks falling victim to natural selection, in the case of infectious diseases like COVID-19, such behaviors put not just old people or those with medical comorbidities, but all of us, at risk.
For more on people's different beliefs and responses to COVID-19:
1. Oliver JE, Wood T. Medical conspiracy theories and health behaviors in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine 2014; 174:817-818.