COVID-19 and Heard Immunity
1 Senior Professor of Psychiatry, Dean, Behavioral Sciences & Head, Department of Mental Health Education, NIMHANS
‘Heard’ immunity is not a misspelling for the more popular ‘herd’ immunity scientists are looking for in this pandemic. It actually refers to myths, misconceptions, misinterpretations and rumours afloat related to the corona virus, lockdown and related activities. These false information were circulated and spread via the social media, news channels, and just by gossip or word of mouth, and are also referred to as infodemic. These were not necessarily intentional or mala fide. So little was known about the corona virus when it struck and spread around the globe, that all information seemed believable. This was true about scientific knowledge also. The World Health Organisation also kept changing its views as they got more evidence and then refuted the same when they got some more new information.
There is research suggesting that repeated media exposure to community crisis can lead to increased anxiety, heightened stress responses; which can end up with misplaced health- protective and help-seeking behaviours. When this is about misinformation and half baked knowledge, people cannot help but believe these. Excessive media coverage of such events can have potentially severe public health repercussions.
The rumours and misinformation proved to be more than or as contagious as the virus itself. This has led to panic and fear in the public. This also led to stigma, not only against the infection, but those who were even remotely associated with it. Many forms of stigma evolved and have become noticeable with the COVID-19 outbreak, and affected a large and varied section of the society.  There is stigma towards those with a travel history to places where COVID-19 appeared and in large numbers, outside or within the country.  This was further aggravated by putting a stamp of indelible ink on their hands and sticking a poster outside their homes to prevent people coming in contact with them. This stigmatised the affected persons and created fear and phobia in others. There was stigma towards those who had come in contact with persons who were COVID-19 positive, either their family members or friends and colleagues, frontline healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, ward attender, looking after COVID patients, directly or indirectly were the unfortunate targets of wrath of the public, as these were considered high risk to spread the infection, police and security personnel who are directly involved with persons who are at a high risk, those advised hospital quarantine, those advised self or home quarantine and
those sneezing and/or coughing due to any reason. There is also self stigma and fear of spreading it to the family members.
Rumours, like the virus, are infectious. Fear and anxiety produced by such rumours are radiated even if social distancing is maintained. These cause widespread panic. A suitable way to deal with these would be providing authentic knowledge and information through appropriate health information and mental health education. These should be in different forms in order to reach the general population, through mass media and social media.
How rumours or gossip could be positive? Some of the fear produced by the information or misinformation can actually make people be more cautious and follow preventive steps of social/physical distancing, use of masks and respiratory and hand hygiene strictly and properly. Social media is abuzz with jokes, wisecracks and light hearted humour on people being confined to home space indefinitely and getting on each other’s nerves. Fear and anxiety caused by hearing of misinformation can be counteracted by listening to authentic and scientific information from reliable sources, which will bring about ‘heard’ immunity against the spread of misinformation. The message is please do not spread misinformation; keep social distance from such misinformation, use a mask to avoid any rumours leaving your mouth, close your ears to such hearsays and wash hands off such misleading gossip.
- Garfin DR, Silver RC, Holman EA. The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health psychology. 2020 Mar 23.
- Chaturvedi SK, Sharma MK. Psychosocial aspects of COVID-19, the Indian way. World Social Psychiatry. 2020; 2 (2)[In press]
- Chaturvedi SK. Covid-19, Coronavirus and Mental Health Rehabilitation at Times of Crisis. Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health. 2020 Apr 5:1-2.
Dr. S K Chaturvedi1
Mentor, Journal of Mental Health Education
1Senior Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, India E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org