OPINION | Pandemic misinformation is biggest hurdle

20 August 2021 - 15:58 By Dr Rinesh Chetty
The author writes that the pandemic has exposed how we have allowed egotistical quests for drama, attention, “clicks” and “likes” to hijack our self-consciousness.
The author writes that the pandemic has exposed how we have allowed egotistical quests for drama, attention, “clicks” and “likes” to hijack our self-consciousness.
Image: REUTERS/Carl Recine

It's time to take control.

We need to understand. We need to help each other. We need to beat this. We need to move forward. We must do this — for ourselves, our children and humanity.

We have been battling this global medical emergency for more than two years. A single strand of RNA has proven to be more powerful than any border, bank balance or army.

Not only did this pandemic prove how fragile our existence on this planet is, but it has also exposed how we have allowed egotistical quests for drama, attention, “clicks” and “likes” to hijack our self-consciousness to a point that it may very well end our way of life.

We have made such ingenious strides in science, technology, communication and equality that, on paper, we should have beaten or, at least, controlled this pandemic by now.

However, when you compare how we are doing today as opposed to the early 1900s pandemic, we have not learnt much. As I come to grips with facing this self-made, selfish third/fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in KwaZulu-Natal, as a frontline healthcare worker I am sure many of my colleagues around the country and world are as pensive, frustrated and gatvol as I am.

As a scientist, healthcare worker, medical doctor and human who cares, I am not going to use this opportunity to keep repeating the basics of fighting an airborne pandemic. We all know masks work, gatherings are spreader events, basic hygiene helps, there are no miracle cures and the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risk.

Despite being an orthopaedic surgeon (I get asked this often), I rely greatly on my experience in adaptability, gained working in a rural hospital during my community service year (something I only appreciate now), general practitioner skills learnt working closely with my father for more than five years, my emergency medicine knowledge obtained overseas while on a working visa/gap year and locally during my registrar rotations through ICU.

I chose to take an active role in fighting this pandemic as I knew I had the ability and resilience to help. Most of all, it helped me do something rather than feel helpless. If you take control, you will not lose it.

Over the past two years and three waves, as a veteran frontline worker I found my phone rang constantly. My Whatsapp numbers pinged at all times of the day and night. I spent hours holding conference calls, video calls, finding and communicating with employees, families, wives, husbands, children, colleagues, friends and loved ones.

Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rinesh Chetty says people need to predict, plan and prepare to ride out the pandemic waves.
Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rinesh Chetty says people need to predict, plan and prepare to ride out the pandemic waves.
Image: Supplied

I heard voices (some still haunt) — desperate, fearful, angry, distraught and panic-stricken.

Running our communications and updates team was as heartbreaking as it was fulfilling. It allowed me to take a massive burden off my fellow frontline colleagues.

Understand what I have learnt and what we have learnt treating this virus.

This virus grows in a medium of naivete and breeds on a culture of ignorance. The panic spreads faster than the pandemic. It infects people’s logic, invades their common sense and clouds their judgment. Desperation is an emotional response to stress that leads to rash and extreme behaviour.

This, on its own, makes healthcare workers’ attempts to treat patients and their families very challenging. The above emotions also make people more suggestible and prone to being manipulated by parties using this pandemic to their personal advantage — be it for monetary gain, political aspirations, popularity contests or to create drama for kicks.

Our biggest challenge is not the treatment. We know what’s working, we have plans in place, we have the experience, we are vaccinating. We are winning many more battles than we are losing, slowly but surely.

The original panic and fear gripped us all equally in the beginning, but as the science spoke and medicine learnt, healthcare workers gained valuable experience, knowledge and insight.

Armoured with the vaccine, we have been able to handle some of our own personal emotions, allowing us to focus our efforts purely on helping more patients and providing a working, proven service.

Our biggest hurdle at present, which is taking over the medical management of the virus, is the challenge presented by sensationalised, attention-seeking misinformation, bridging patient-family communication, quelling public panic and treating everyone’s fear while trying to provide quality, rapid patient care.

Everything is fine — until it is not.

Please can I offer two keys that help unlock the panic of dealing with Covid-19 for our patients, their families, our team and myself.

Predict, plan and prepare

If you have not yet, you need to prepare for if, and when, this virus affects you or your loved ones. Make appropriate arrangements before you get ill. 

Get yourself and your house in order: emergency contacts, backup support, relatives or friends and next-of-kin communication channels, to name a few.

If you become infected or sick, what will you do? What must those around you do? What happens next? 

Keep a set of over-the-counter medications and masks, plan isolation procedures, have available emergency medical details, your GP, hospital, medical aid details, work routines and chronic medication lists.

Ask yourself: “What if?”

Take control of your response and care.

Communicate, comprehend and care

Creating a stable family and patient communication channel is key in Covid-19 and all major illness processes requiring hospital admission. Unfortunately, relying on pre-Covid channels is not practical or safe for anyone. It will not change any time soon. Create your own communication channels if a loved one is hospitalised.

Make sure they have a working phone, charger, adapter and enough data/credit. A set of earphones is essential to allow them to talk over and above the noise of a ward or ICU. A basic bedside communication card with clear contact number(s) makes healthcare workers’ tasks much easier.

If you’re hospitalised, make the effort to communicate with your family. If you’re family, make the effort to communicate with your loved one. Relying purely on the treating healthcare workers, especially during an infection surge, can lead to much frustration, given the major challenges we all face together.

Nominate one family member, preferably a healthcare worker or someone who has the maturity to understand and relay relevant information. Asking your GP to take the updates from the hospital makes it easier for your team to relay real-time information.

If you do get a call from the hospital where your loved one is a patient:

  • Please stay calm.
  • Keep a pen and notebook/writing paper on hand.
  • Write down the key words we say or relay.
  • Write down the questions you would like to ask.
  • Most of all, be patient.

We are all doing our best. Finding the time and right words to say is not as easy as you may think, especially when it is bad news.

Debriefing and face-to-face meetings during, or after, hospital stays are important and should be set through healthcare providers’ rooms. Post-trauma counselling is a facet of our current situation that is often forgotten or overlooked during these periods by both the public and healthcare workers. Please consider attending these sessions if need be.

Hang in there. We will see the end — slowly but surely.

Chin up, stand tall and do what you can to help yourself, your loved ones and humanity.

Take control and be strong.


  • Dr Rinesh Chetty is a Covid-19 medical officer and founder of the SA Doctors United group.