BC’s COVID-19 “infodemic” tackled by MSFHR-funded research project

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Stress levels, youth mental health and stigma toward non-white British Columbians are just some of the topics covered by a COVID-19 rapid response research project funded by MSFHR and led by Dr. Emily Rempel, Harlan Pruden and Katie Fenn at the BC Centre for Disease Control.  The work seeks to understand the “infodemic” aspect of the pandemic, and how it is impacting British Columbians differently, through examining information sources, misinformation, and behavior. The results will help public health officials determine how public health information is filtering to the public and if something is missing and why.

An infodemic—declared by the World Health Organization in February—refers to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 that can range from simple misunderstandings about how the virus spreads to fake miracle cures that are potentially harmful to public health.

In order to effectively assess the level of misinformation in BC and understand British Columbians’ experiences of the pandemic, the research team worked with Lux Insights to distribute a survey to a diverse sample of British Columbians. The survey design was purposefully inclusive, including questions that address Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ communities in a culturally safe and sensitive way. Feedback from survey participants affirmed the importance of using inclusive language.

Some of the more encouraging findings revealed that British Columbians are largely aware of the province’s COVID-19 messaging, including phrases like “flattening the curve” and “physical distancing.” The survey showed that BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is the most trusted source of information on COVID-19 in BC for over half of those surveyed. Additionally, the survey results showed that over 90 per cent of those surveyed reported visiting public spaces less since the onset of the pandemic, although for many, this also meant exercising less and spending less time outside.

The survey also revealed how misinformation about COVID-19 persists among British Columbians, with one example being a belief that the virus is airborne and can be treated with antibiotics. Survey results also indicated that the pandemic is having a greater impact on the mental health of young adults aged 18-34 than other age groups, and that young British Columbians are much less likely to seek out information from TV news.

Finally, the survey showed that non-white British Columbians are experiencing the pandemic differently than white British Columbians. For example, Chinese, Indigenous and South Asian British Columbians have observed bad treatment due to race and a perceived association with COVID-19 in far greater numbers than white British Columbians. 

With the survey results in hand, the research team will use insights gained to help inform and shape ongoing communications to British Columbians during the pandemic, including the benefits of developing trusted spokespeople and visually representing multiethnic groups.

This is the first of a series of articles featuring the four rapid response projects MSFHR funded in March at the urgent request of the Provincial Health Officer to help inform the provincial response to the pandemic. The other three projects are testing BC’s baseline susceptibility to COVID-19, tracking the transmission of COVID-19 in BC and developing candidate COVID-19 vaccines and clinical tools.

The Michael Smith Foundation is proud to be supporting BC’s provincial coordinated health research response through this work, the MSFHR COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, and support to BC’s Strategic Research Advisory Committee.