The Perils of Social Media During a Pandemic

Social media and online connectedness is both a blessing and a curse at this time in history.

It’s a blessing in that I can video call my parents, who are in their 80s and 90s and are thousands of kilometres away. I can also keep in touch with our kids, who are also thousands of kilometres away. (What can I say? We’re a very spread out family, and Australia’s a really big place!) And I can do it all right now, and whenever I want. It’s actually very comforting, in what’s become a rather more complicated world than it was, only a few weeks ago.

I’m also trying to figure out exactly which platform/s I’ll use to launch my new book in about two weeks. Mind you, it also means that people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to ‘be at’ the launch will be able to. Signing and handing over books won’t quite be the same, but Australia Post will probably get a workout.

On the other hand, trying to distance yourself from the relentless COVID-19 information when you want or need a break from it means completely disengaging with some types of social media. Or turning the TV off. (When I got home from work tonight, I sat outside relaxing with a cup of tea and the birds. It was very nice.)

But then I decided to check my notifications on facebook. There were some lovely ones – an old picture of me with some great friends, a very funny video, and some great book reviews. Then there were some less fun, but still helpful ones – updates on COVID-19, with reminders to hand wash, do appropriate physical distancing, and reminders about making sure you only go out as per the current set of rules.

Unfortunately, there were also a chunk of posts on a variety of conspiracy theories as well – a fair few of which suggest that the current pandemic is a hoax, and which suddenly seem to have proliferated in the last few days. They’ve been popping up with relentless frequency on our local community page. And then there was the odd post on a completely unscientific and magical remedy which will fix everything by alkalising stuff even though it’s actually an acid…

That kind of stuff feels like a real smack in the face. You see, I have friends who are nurses and doctors and I’m a physiotherapist in my other life. Currently, I work in private practice, doing primarily musculoskeletal work. However, my colleagues in hospital practice are at this very moment, making sure their ICU and acute respiratory care skills are up to scratch. Some are upskilling and refreshing their skills, while others prepare to take on incredible loads of responsibility.

Should our curve not flatten enough, those same colleagues will be working directly with COVID-19. They are the doctors, nurses, physios, pharmacists and radiographers who will don PPE to protect themselves, and work with the most unwell in order to save their lives and prevent long term health sequelae. Some of my friends and colleagues are already working in EDs, screening potentially unwell people.

Tonight our news announced that 40,000 ex health workers whose registration has lapsed in the last three years in Australia will be contacted and asked to consider re-registering under a special pandemic register. They’re hoping for a minimum of 5-10% of health professionals to answer the call. Doctors, pharmacists, midwives and nurses will be in the first call up. Physiotherapists and radiographers will be in the second wave.

When someone posts something on social media suggesting that all of this is a hoax, it frustrates me in ways you can’t possibly understand unless you work in health. This is deadly serious. People have been dying in their hundreds overseas. We haven’t yet seen our health system stretched to its limits here, thankfully, but we have to prepare as if it will be, and then be incredibly thankful that all that preparation wasn’t needed, if that’s how all of this turns out. And I seriously hope that’s what happens here. Then some of my doctor friends won’t have to make unspeakable choices, which might well haunt them forever.

All the things we’re doing now are to slow the spread to allow our health system to cope so that those horrible choices do not have to be made. Irresponsible posting on social media does not help. Most people won’t believe the posts, fortunately, but some will. And the more those things proliferate, the more the gullible or just plain wishful thinkers end up seeing them, and perhaps along the way, a few of them decide not to do the right thing.

Maybe they go and visit a few like-minded friends, or take a trip to the coast, stopping at a public toilet or two during the day. And perhaps in the public toilet, someone who’s been unwell has used the facilities. And because said person doesn’t believe that COVID-19 is a thing, perhaps they don’t bother with good hand washing techniques.

Perhaps they become unwell themselves, but perhaps before then, they attend their place of work because they’re an essential services worker, maybe in a supermarket, and then they pass the bug on to their fellow workers, and maybe a few people shopping for necessities.

And then there’s a sudden cluster of cases, each of whom may have infected several more. It’s what nightmares are made of for any sensible person right now.

This is not about me. And it’s not about you, the individual, it’s about collective caring so that we, the community, come out of this pandemic without the loss of life that we’ve seen so much of overseas. My heart breaks when I see statistics from places like Italy and Spain right now.

So far, despite 20 deaths in Australia, we have only 4,864 cases that we know of right now. So far, our health system is coping, and the curve looks hopeful. So please, take this seriously. Don’t be taken in by conspiracy theories. Don’t share stuff because someone you know posted it, and ‘they couldn’t possibly be wrong,’ despite it being completely contrary to the information coming out of the Department of Health.

#thinkfirst #beresponsible #thinkofthosewhoworkinhealth #careforothers

Sorry. Rant over now.

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