The spread of COVID-19 misinformation in Canada cost at least 2,800 lives and $300 million in hospital expenses over nine months of the pandemic, according to estimates in a new report out Thursday.
The report — released by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), an independent research organization that receives federal funding — examined how misinformation affected COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths between March and November of 2021.
The authors suggest that misinformation contributed to vaccine hesitancy for 2.3 million Canadians. Had more people been willing to roll up their sleeves when a vaccine was first available to them, Canada could have seen roughly 200,000 fewer COVID cases and 13,000 fewer hospitalizations, the report says.
Alex Himelfarb, chair of the expert panel that wrote the report, said that its estimates are very conservative because it only examined a nine-month period of the pandemic.
“It’s pretty clear that tens of thousands of hospitalizations did occur because of misinformation,” Himelfarb told reporters. “We are confident that those are conservative estimates.”
Himelfarb also said the $300 million estimate covers only hospital costs — the study didn’t include indirect costs associated with factors such as delayed elective surgeries and lost wages.
A number of studies have found that getting vaccinated can reduce the risk of COVID infection and hospitalization. But only 80 per cent of Canadians have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from Health Canada.
The CCA report defines two groups of vaccine-hesitant individuals: those who were reluctant to get a shot and those who refused. It says that reluctant individuals expressed concerns about vaccines in general and questioned the speed with which COVID vaccines were developed.
Vaccine refusers, on the other hand, were more likely to believe that the pandemic is a hoax or greatly exaggerated, the report says.
Beyond the health impacts, misinformation is depriving people of their right to be informed, said Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Psychological Science in the U.K. and one of the report’s authors.
“In a democracy, the public should be able to understand the risks we’re facing … and act on that basis,” he said. “But if you’re drenched in misinformation … then you’re distorting the public’s ability — and you’re denying people the right — to be informed about the risks they’re facing.”
The report says misinformation relies on simple messages meant to evoke emotional reactions. It says misinformation is often presented as coming from a credible source, such as a scientific publication.
Ideology can play a role: authors
The authors also suggest that misinformation can be driven by someone’s personal worldview, ideology or political identity.
“Denial of collective action problems is going to be very [prevalent] among people who don’t like collective action,” Himelfarb said, noting that misinformation can flow into political messaging.
“When misinformation becomes tied up with identity and ideology, political leaders will often look to misinformation as a means of building their coalition,” he said. He did not point to any single politician.
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, a vocal opponent of COVID-19 public health restrictions and vaccine passports, appeared to unify a portion of the electorate that views pandemic policies as government overreach when he finished with roughly five per cent of the vote in the 2021 election.
Lewandowsky said social media can contribute to the spread of misinformation, but policies to counter such misinformation — such as requiring labels on inaccurate information — could help.
Himelfarb said it’s important to balance tackling misinformation with freedom of expression.
“Finding that sweet spot is a challenge,” he said.
Lewandowsky said one way to strike a balance would be to make sure reliable information is more widely available and to give people tools to identify misinformation.
“The people who do misinform us have a certain repertoire of rhetorical techniques … and we can identify those,” he said.