In March 2021, the BBC reported that one of their investigative teams had, “Been tracking the human toll of coronavirus misinformation”. During this investigation they claimed to have found links to “assaults, arsons and deaths”. Worryingly, experts also told them that, “The potential for indirect harm caused by rumours, conspiracy theories and bad health information could be much worse”. Sounds like an interesting investigation, doesn’t it? Public service output at its finest, you might think. Just the kind of article we’d all like to read.
Alas. Not quite.
The problem with the BBC is that it simply can’t help itself. Having teed an ostensibly interesting story up in this open, investigatory journalistic type of way, its authors then proceed to devote a good-ish chunk of what follows to that most favourite of all BBC pastimes, namely, implicating Donald Trump in the act of mass murder. As with the butterfly so beloved of chaos theory (you know the one: that little blighter who’s always flapping his wings and causing tsunamis to crash into the coast of Bangladesh) no sooner have the BBC shown us Trump tweeting about the FDA’s preliminary research into hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against Covid than the magic of non-deterministic linear physics kicks in and people all over Nigeria and Vietnam suddenly start mopping up the old bleach-based products like vacuum cleaners.
In the end, then, the only interesting thing about this article is the way it reminds us just how little time and attention the BBC have paid to exploring the link that surely must exist between Covid ‘misinformation’ (as they themselves insist on calling it) and the huge rise in cases of psychosomatic disorder – health anxiety in particular – that we’ve witnessed in the UK since the dawn of the Age of Lockdown (2020-present). Let me explain what I mean.
And to do so, let me start by asking a question: what might disinformation likely to precipitate new, or to heighten existing, levels of anxiety amongst those suffering from psychosomatic disorders look like? How, in other words, might we define such a thing? Well, perhaps we might say that it would be information that unduly exaggerated the risks associated with Covid. Perhaps we might go further and say that it would represent the risks associated with Covid in a highly misleading and/or a sensationalist way. Come to think of it, perhaps we might end up concluding that it would look rather like the BBC’s recent article, ‘Long COVID funding to unearth new treatments.’ Below is the thumbnail picture accompanying the piece.
As you can see, it depicts two masked patients, chaperoned by two masked nurses, who look unmistakably like they’re having to learn how to walk again. (And by the way, anyone who’s going to counter that it could just as plausibly be a depiction of two patients being tested for, say, oxygen carrying capacity or pulse rate during recovery from a respiratory illness like Covid would need to explain to me why it is that neither patient is shown to be wearing any tracking/monitoring equipment, and, in addition, why neither nurse is shown to be holding/studying any data monitors). The male patient in the foreground of the image looks particularly unsteady on his feet, relying heavily on the metal frame surrounding him for bodily support. One of the masked nurses stands next to him, watching his legs and feet intently, presumably scanning for any warning signs of imminent collapse or a stumble. Her right arm is stretching out towards him, and no doubt a guiding/supportive hand is resting on the patient’s shoulder. Just behind the male patient, you can also see the lower half of the wheelchair in which he will have been brought from his hospital ward and into this rehabilitation class.
But if that’s what it shows, then what kind of patient might actually need rehabilitation of this kind; rehabilitation, that is, in which patients are having to learn how to walk again? It’s the type of thing that you’d imagine is normally reserved for patients needing post-surgery rehabilitation; patients who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries, neurological disorders, car-crashes, amputations and the like. That’s big league, serious stuff. We’re essentially talking about a type of rehabilitative treatment for people who’re on the cusp of, or who’re already suffering from, life-changing injuries/illnesses.
So is this the type of treatment that people suffering from Long Covid are likely to need? I ask because as we’ve already established, it’s the type of treatment that’s depicted in the image the BBC have attached to an article entitled, “Long Covid funding to unearth new treatments” the first paragraph of which reads: “Thousands of people with ‘long Covid’ could benefit from the funding of 15 new studies of the condition, its causes and potential treatments”. To help us on the way towards answering this question, here’s what the NHS guide to the symptoms currently associated with ‘Long Covid’ has to say for itself:
Common Long Covid symptoms include:
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or tightness
- problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- heart palpitations
- pins and needles
- joint pain
- depression and anxiety
- tinnitus, earaches
- feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
- a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
Now I’m no doctor, admittedly, but I’m not entirely satisfied that a programme of rehabilitative walking usually reserved for wheelchair bound patients in post-surgery recovery is going to prove particularly efficacious when it comes to the treatment of long Covid patients with earache, diarrhoea and changes of smell or taste. In fact, I’m not satisfied at all.
Indeed it rather seems to me that the BBC’s choice of image, when considered as an accompaniment to this particular article, might justifiably be described as misinformation; that is, as information that unduly exaggerates the risks associated with long Covid in a highly misleading or a sensationalist way.
By the way, do you like my definition of misinformation? Thanks. Perhaps it might interest you, then, to know it’s culled from the BBC’s own editorial guidelines. Specifically, therein we find “Section 3, Accuracy”, and, more particularly, “Sub-section 3.3.24”, which states that, “Reconstructions [which this image undeniably is] are when events are quite explicitly re-staged”, and that in order to abide by the BBC’s editorial guidelines, “They should normally be based on a substantial and verifiable body of evidence… [and they] should not overdramatise in a misleading or sensationalist way”.
On this basis, then, is it not the case that the BBC’s own reality-check team, that bastion of fairness and impartiality in a world gone wrong, should hold the organisation to account for spreading long Covid misinformation? Is it not an article that exaggerates and sensationalises the effects of long Covid? Further, is it not likely to generate additional, or indeed to heighten existing cases of, psychosomatic health disorders in the U.K.?
I guess if you’re the type of person who’s already suffering from heightened worry about your health, about lockdown, about physical contact with others, about viruses, about disease; I guess if you surf the web but never really read anything carefully; if you scan the thumbnails on the BBC’s news homepage but never click through to the articles; if you look at an article’s opening image and then only scan the first two or three paragraphs of text thereafter… then I guess, absolutely, it might indeed be considered ‘misinformation.’
“But isn’t this all just a little pedantic?” I hear you ask. “A bit nit-picky?” Oh, absolutely. And doesn’t it feel good to be playing the BBC at their own game for a change. So good, in fact, that you really must forgive me. I’m enjoying myself so much that I’m going to continue to be pedantic for a little while yet.
Because you see I guess, too, that if you’re prone to experiencing psychosomatic disorders of one kind of another, if you’re already well-known to your local GP surgery and A&E, then it might panic you quite a bit to think that the image the BBC have chosen to use here depicts a fate that might lie in store for you too if you ever contracted Covid and then experienced Long Covid. I guess too that if you’re that way inclined, then you might even feel you needed to take the vaccine, any vaccine, right this minute, no questions asked, jab jab jab, please, put it in me doctor, oh God, put it in me… and to hell with any kind of informed consent.
Jabbed or not, if you’re that way inclined then I guess you might nevertheless see that picture, that image of the Long Covid patient struggling to walk in the BBC’s article, and then, at some point later, get around to thinking that you’re experiencing the symptoms of Long Covid, that you’re really ill, that you’re dying, that you’re in need of immediate and very urgent medical attention, that you’ve got to go to A&E immediately because you might end up in a wheelchair unable to walk; I guess, too, that you might see that picture and then end up yo-yo-ing in and out of the healthcare system for the rest of your life, costing the taxpayer money, wasting valuable medical time, worrying that there’s a direct line of causality that “the science” has established between you coughing, you sneezing and you ending up in hospital needing a wheelchair to get you to your rehabilitative walking therapy sessions.
It’s strange, isn’t it? I mean, the BBC is normally so keen, so eager, to castigate others for disseminating what they’ve decreed to be Covid misinformation capable of causing or exacerbating existing physical disorders. Yet in the case of psychosomatic disorders – i.e. panic, hyperventilating, health anxiety, generalised anxiety, hypertension, depression, chills, gastrointestinal disturbances – they’re curiously reluctant to take up those same sanctimonious ‘fact-checking’ cudgels.
It’s a reluctance that matters, though, isn’t it? The sad and unfortunate thing about psychosomatic disorders is that those suffering from them are more likely than almost any other group in society to place unnecessary pressure on the NHS. After all, if you’re worried that you’re seriously unwell and/or in imminent danger of dying, where’s the first place you’re going to go? That’s right: a primary or secondary healthcare provider. The problem, of course, is that people who suffer from those types of disorders are neither seriously ill nor in imminent danger of dying. What they ‘are’ is suffering from severe anxiety. That’s not nothing, of course; but it’s hardly first responder or A&E type stuff, is it?
That this might constitute a problem during a global pandemic of a mild respiratory illness in which we’ve all been told to put our lives, businesses, careers on hold because the NHS is under massive existential pressure, seems obvious. If the NHS is already clogged up with respiratory tract illness and you then go and add a whole bunch of psychosomatic patients to the mix… well, you’ve got a problem, haven’t you? You’d think the BBC would care about that sort of thing, particularly given the pious, reverent tone it normally adopts when it’s representing the NHS. You’d think they’d want to provide balanced, calm, rational reportage of what was going on; reportage that was clear about the extremely low risk Covid poses to the vast majority of people in this country.
I wonder. Could it be that if we were to widen the scope of the concept of ‘misinformation’ to include not only information capable of causing physical harm, but also that likely to cause psychosomatic harm, we’d be forced to conclude that the BBC, with all its Covid exaggerations, its hyperbole, its uncritical, unreflexive treatment of “the science” handed down to it by SAGE, its failure to hold the Government to account, to approach statistics sceptically, to put case numbers into perspective, its obsession with filming death porn reports from inside hospitals (etc etc)… if we were to consider all of that as misinformation too, might we not end up concluding that the BBC has done as much damage to the psychological health and wellbeing of the nation it purports to inform, educate and entertain as Donald Trump ever did with his tweety-tweety chit-chat about preliminary research into hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against Covid? I wonder indeed.
Wilfred Thomas is a former academic.