Covid-19: lack of knowledge is driving public panic

The outbreak of covid-19 has caused serious concerns in China and internationally. In response to this epidemic, Wuhan in Hubei province, China—the epicenter of the outbreak—was locked down on 23 January 2020 and 30 provinces in China have launched the highest public health emergency response. Panic has spread among the public, with excess use of ethanol spray, purchase of medications which have not yet proven effective, and anxieties about quarantine. The psychological stress of this panic, and the potential for the outbreak to become a pandemic, may not only have an undesirable impact on individuals, their families, and communities, but also cause inappropriate use of resources and medical services. 

A lack of adequate knowledge is probably the driving force for the public panic, particularly at the early stages of an outbreak—highlighting the fact that information is crucial. Misunderstandings about the information that is available, even worse exaggerating such information, may further aggravate the panic. Unfortunately, these phenomena are not uncommon. To relieve the public panic, an effective approach would be timely publication of trustworthy research evidence in a manner appropriate for the public. 

To date, there have been a number of reports and research papers published in peer reviewed journals. However, this information is largely aimed at researchers and healthcare professionals. The study findings are often obscure for the general public. Some of the published evidence is reporting on early findings and there are some methodological limitations. If inappropriately interpreted, they could misinform the public and could potentially cause further panic or psychological stress. We believe that providing the public with timely and credible evidence and appropriate interpretation is very important. Disseminating the evidence effectively is critical to improving the public’s understanding of the outbreak. 

In order to share this evidence effectively with the public, we need to establish ways of distilling reliable and emerging research evidence into key public health messages. Healthcare professionals, epidemiologists, statisticians, experts in evidence-based medicine, and public health are all needed to ensure that research evidence is systematically collected, correctly assessed, appropriately interpreted, and translated into public health messages that can be easily understood by the public. Finally, innovative approaches are needed to disseminate the evidence in a timely and effectively way. 

Wen Wang is assistant professor at Chinese Evidence-based Medicine Center, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, China

Qiao He, Mei Liu, and Mingqi Wang are research associates at Chinese Evidence-based Medicine Center, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, China 

Xin Sun is professor and director of the Chinese Evidence-based Medicine Center and Cochrane China Center, West China Hospital, Sichuan University, China

Competing interests: None declared