Stop These Coronavirus Myths from Spreading in Your Workplace

Prepare, don’t panic, experts say

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie March 9, 2020

​People in Asia contracted the coronavirus because they ate bat soup. People can catch the virus by drinking Corona beer. The virus has killed thousands of people in the U.S. alone. Ethanol, steroids and salty water can cure the coronavirus.

These are among the myths circulating worldwide about the outbreak of COVID-19 that has infected some 500 people in the U.S. and killed not thousands but 21.

Social media and sensational headlines, in particular, tend to perpetuate such myths, which in turn can create unnecessary panic, say medical, psychology and media experts.

"In the media, there's a phrase that 'if it bleeds, it leads,' " said Angel Tuccy, a media exposure specialist at Vedette Global Media in Denver, Colo. "News is based on compelling headlines. Viewership increases when there's hype. Hype drives [reader and viewer] numbers, and numbers drive advertisers." 

Among the myths flowing across social media are that Corona beer and bat soup are either the cures or the causes of the virus. The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research center, recently noted that a global team of fact-checkers is working to debunk these falsehoods.

Margo Livingston, a doctor of immunology and a nurse practitioner in the United Kingdom, is keeping her own list of myths. One, she said, is misinformation about the course and severity of the illness and who it will affect—information that fails to note that the disease is largely fatal in the elderly and infirm and has only mild symptoms in the vast majority of fit, healthy people with strong immune systems.

"Hype and misinformation deliberately cause panic," she said. "This helps those who lack accountability and integrity and may wish to capitalize on increased sales, panic buying, travel chaos, online scaremongering, or the disruption of the financial and economic markets."

Seasonal Flu vs. the Coronavirus

To help put this virus in context, it's important to know that the seasonal flu affects and kills far more people each year in the U.S. than the coronavirus has to date. And in the U.S., 90 percent of those who die from seasonal flu each year—whose symptoms are nearly identical to the coronavirus—are elderly, often with underlying chronic conditions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

"In general, the U.S. public does not understand the risk posed by seasonal influenza," said Samuel Scarpino, a business professor of network science at Northeastern University College of Science. "It is one of the leading causes of mortality every year."

The CDC has published the following figures for the seasonal flu's U.S. impact between Oct. 1, 2019, and Feb. 29, 2020:

  • 34 million to 49 million people have suffered from flu-like illness.
  • 16 million to 23 million have visited doctors, clinics or hospitals because of flu symptoms.
  • 350,000 to 620,000 have been hospitalized for the flu.
  • 20,000 to 52,000 have died from the flu, an average of 7,000 per month.

Both the flu and the coronavirus are respiratory infections. They both display almost identical symptoms. Both can be deadly.

Livingston notes that there are some differences between the two: The flu tends to be seasonal, and it's not known whether the coronavirus is; and there is a vaccine for the seasonal flu, but so far, none for the coronavirus.

The Danger of Misinformation

Myths and misinformation about a new disease tend to spread in the absence of full information, Tuccy noted. 

"The flu isn't news. The coronavirus is new. Uncertainty freaks people out. By warning people not to attend events, to stay home, and by using the phrase 'social distancing' this creates sensation. Highlighting the worst-case scenario on every local [news] station draws people in, because when it's local, it feels personal."

And that uncertainty, she said, can be dangerous.

"This has created a critical shift in behavior, and that behavior is driving economics. Anytime economics are impacted, you're going to see the headlines show up." 

Danielle Holtjer, a psychotherapist and clinical director at Skylark Counselling in Vancouver, Canada, notes that there's a biological reason for the panic we now see surrounding the coronavirus.

"In modern society, where we don't need to fight dangerous predators, our brains still have this coping mechanism," she said. "COVID-19 is something we are all unfamiliar with, so our brains are constantly evaluating how dangerous this threat is, while our environment—the media, our friends and family are discussing it—highlights its presence. We are evolutionarily programed, within the deepest parts of our brains, to not only imagine worst-case scenarios, but to protect our loved ones, to problem solve, and to [decide on a] fight or flight response."

Still, "everyone is right to be concerned about the coronavirus, because we're just at the beginning of this pandemic, and can't be sure how it will end," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York City. 


Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


The PMQ teaches managers to lead effectively, giving HR more time to meet the demands of the workplace.

The PMQ teaches managers to lead effectively, giving HR more time to meet the demands of the workplace.

Discover PMQ


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.