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Information Literacy as a Civic Responsibility: Examples: COVID-19

A corresponding guide to the convo talk "Information Literacy as a Civic Responsbility", presented in September 2020 by Ryan Flynn '15, Director of Community-Engaged Learning, and Elora Agsten, Instructional Librarian.

COVID-19 and Misinformation

The skills you just learned can be applied to anything: researching for a paper, looking up the positions of political candidates, figuring out if something your friend told you was true, etc.. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an explosion of misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media and beyond. Some of these theories are simple, some of them are extremely complicated. Fortunately, a lot of professional fact checkers, doctors, scientists, professors, teachers, and librarians are vocally trying to correct misinformation.


So let's try to do the same.  Below, we'll work through two COVID-19 conspiracy theories. For the sake of accessibility, we will only be using resources we can find on Google: 


Theory #1

The theory: If you can hold your breath for ten seconds and don't cough, you don't have COVID! 

The truth: You cannot self-check for COVID-19. Being able to hold your breath for ten seconds DOES NOT mean you are free from COVID-19.


How to find it
Try this Google search below

Google Web Search

One of the first results are from the World Health Organization, also known as the WHO. The WHO is a global health organization sponsored by the UN and has an active interest in trying to keep the world healthy. Many of the top doctors and scientists from around the world work for the WHO. This is an organization you can trust. 

The WHO states on this claim, "The best way to confirm if you have  the virus producing COVID-19 disease is with a laboratory test.  You cannot confirm it with this breathing exercise, which can even be dangerous." 


But let's say you've never heard of the WHO before. Do another quick Google search (below) for World Health Organization and verify this information for yourself.

Google Web Search


In addition to debunking this conspiracy, they even put out a shareable graphic. 


Theory #2

The theory: COVID-19 isn't any worse than the flu. 

The truth: While there are some similarities between the two illnesses, COVID-19 has already killed significantly more people between December 2019 and September 2020 than the flu does yearly. 

How to find it: 
This one is a little harder, as what we are still learning much about COVID-19. This is part of the scientific process and it takes time to produce this research.

However, we can access what we know now by trying this Google search:

Google Web Search

This site, from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, details similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu. 

Johns Hopkins is a university with one of the best medical schools in the United States. This is a source you can trust. However, if you did not know what Johns Hopkins was, do a quick Google search, like the one below, to find out. 


Google Web Search

This will give you information about Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and its reputation. 

However, the article linked above only gives you similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu. We want to find out which one is worse. While determining which symptoms are "worse" is a little subjective, we can find data on two major factors that are considered when determining how dangerous a disease is: mortality rate and hospitalization rate. 

For this example, we'll do the 
mortality rate of COVID-19 (how many people who have COVID-19 die from it). 

Google Web Search

One of the first things to come up in our search is data gathered by Google from other sources on the Internet, discussing number of cases and deaths in the US and locally. This isn't bad information, but we want to get to the source, so we keep scrolling. 

This is where the newness of COVID-19 becomes complicated. One of our first results is a mortality analyses of COVID-19 from the around the world, published by Johns Hopkins University (which we established previously was a reliable source). The site provides a complex look at the changing mortality rate around the world, something that scientists do not fully understand yet. 

Perhaps we should refine our search. How many people have died from COVID-19 around the world and in the US? 

Google Web Search

Again, we get a chart produced by Google and again we'll scroll past that. One of our first results is also again from Johns Hopkins and it is the same mortality analysis site we saw from our previous search. So perhaps we should take a second look. This time, let's click on the "Global Map" tab and see where it will take us. 

This tab tells us that the current number of COVID-19 deaths stands at 962,176 (as of September 21, 2020). 

Now let's try the same search, but in the US.

Google Web Search

Again, we get a chart produced by Google and again we'll scroll past that. One of our first results is from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC- which is the US government's top public health service. But if we did not know this, we could do a quick Google search as we've done previously to find out!).


As of September 21, 2020, there have been 185,981 deaths involving COVID-19 in the US. 

Now let's compare that to numbers about the flu. For our purposes, we'll want to look at the average number of yearly deaths from the flu. It is important to remember here: the flu is a disease that has a long history and occurs yearly. COVID-19 was only recently discovered in December of 2019. If necessary, you can also do quick Google searches, such as those below, to confirm this information. 

Google Web Search
Google Web Search

Once you have confirmed your timeline, it's time to search to search for the average yearly deaths of the flu. 

Google Web Search

One of the first sites that appears is from the WHO, which we established in the previous example was a trustworthy source. According to the WHO, an estimated 290,000 to 650,000 people die from the flu each year.

Let's do it again, but just for the US.

Google Web Search

One of the first sites that come up from this search is from the CDC (which is reliable, as we established earlier). In the 2019-2020 flu season, there was an estimated 24,000-65,000 deaths from the flu in the US. 

In conclusion: 
Global COVID-19 deaths: 962,176
Average global flu deaths: ~290,000 to ~650,000


US COVID 19 deaths: 185,981 
Average US flu deaths: ~24,00- ~65,000

From these numbers, it is possible to conclude that COVID-19 is much deadlier than the seasonal flu. 

This searching was complicated and did not work perfectly every time. Unfortunately, that is sometimes the case and necessary to find information.