Online safety / April 23, 2020

The five Ws of COVID-19

Diane McIntosh

Dr. Diane McIntosh

Chief Neuroscience Officer, TELUS

Woman and computer

We’re all facing a monumental challenge to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities from COVID-19. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the facts yet regarding the virus, and some information we hear from health authorities can be unnerving because it seems to keep changing – sometimes daily.

This virus has become a pandemic because it is unlike any other viral illness we have faced before. It has some features in common with the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus. However, this coronavirus has unique characteristics that must be better understood before doctors and scientists know how to prevent its spread, mitigate its harm and treat it effectively.

It is in these uncertain circumstances that misinformation and conspiracy theories can take root, undermining our faith in science, our safety and our ability to get back to our usual lives.

When people are anxious, they might unwittingly accept unproven theories or apply false logic to try to understand the incomprehensible or to feel a sense of control again. Conspiracy theorists are people who view events or situations from a sinister or threatening perspective. They assume bad actors are responsible for situations that are better explained by other less menacing reasons.

To share a couple of recent examples, according to recent Pew Research data, 29 per cent of Americans believe the virus that causes COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab. A small number of people are perpetuating the belief that the virus somehow “communicates” through 5G and can specifically target victims. Interestingly, COVID-19 has raged in countries that are years away from having 5G access.

There is a growing body of science to help us understand why some people are more open to conspiracies. They tend to be less trusting and place high value on their own uniqueness, but at the same time they tend to feel most comfortable in a community that shares their non-mainstream views. In general, conspiracy theorists assume meaning and infer a motive where most others would not.

How do you protect yourself and your family from misinformation or being drawn into an argument with a conspiracy theorist? Consider following the five Ws of finding credible medical facts:

1. Why

Why bother getting accurate, updated information? Having access to the most up-to-date, scientifically valid information will save lives, get us on the other side of this pandemic faster and help us define our new normal more quickly. Although the information we hear will keep changing as scientists learn more, that should be reassuring rather than concerning. I take comfort in knowing there are medical leaders around the world working to update information as it becomes available.

2. Who

Who needs credible information? All adults need to have a good grasp of the facts. While it’s important to speak to children about COVID-19 in an age-appropriate manner, adults, young and old, require this information to keep themselves and their communities safe. Without accurate information, we are unable to make appropriate decisions, which will place more people in harm’s way, prolonging the outbreak and deepening the economic crisis.

3. Where

Where should you get your scientifically valid information? Choose reputable news sources and medical organizations like Health Canada, the World Health Organization or your provincial medical officer. You can also check out our recent TELUS Talks with Tamara Taggart podcast featuring a conversation with B.C. Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, updating Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic.

4. What

What information do you need? When seeking information, the high death rates and devastating hospital scenes can heighten anxiety for some and drive them away from getting updated medical advice. If this is an issue for you, try to limit your news watching and focus only on updating the knowledge you need to keep you and your community safe. Should you get a COVID test? What symptoms should you expect if you’re infected? Where should you seek help if you’re sick? Answers to these important questions are updated regularly on government websites.

5. When

When do you need updates? We are learning more every day, but if you’re finding the constant influx of distressing information overwhelming, limit your updates to once or twice a week. Alternatively, ask a friend or family member to curate and summarize the highlights, perhaps in exchange for a loaf of the delicious bread you’re now baking!

We’ll get through this together with good science and the support of our communities. Stay safe, stay healthy and take good care of yourself and those you love.

Warm Wishes,


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