By Paul Witman
It is said that information’s most fundamental purpose is to enable people to make informed decisions. And with what was officially labeled a pandemic on March 11, getting the right information about the coronavirus and COVID-19 is critical.
It is not helpful if the information is not of good quality, or if we cannot or do not trust it. Real people are making decisions every day that might affect their own health or that of their families, employees or citizens — even the entire world. Good quality information is timely, trustworthy, actionable, scientifically sound and delivered in a way that is accessible and intelligible to those who need it. It is also important that information is not politicized, confusing or driven by rumors that add no value to the decision-making process.
Actionable information allows us to make decisions about specific actions to take. “Prepare for disruption in our daily lives” may be a reasonable suggestion, but it is remarkably vague. Specific information, such as what types of disruptions we might expect and what preparation steps to take, would be much more helpful.
Scientifically sound information is based on science, using the best available real data to generate information for decision making. It should not be based on rumors or guesses, and it should not be put through a political spin by any part of the political spectrum to suit a particular political goal.
Timely information can be a challenge. New information is constantly discovered, digested, integrated with existing information and shared by various outlets. Sometimes it can seem to conflict with prior information, such as about infection rates and mechanisms, overall death rates and death rates broken down by demographics and other risk factors. All of these have been subject to change since the virus appeared. It is normal for data to change as research continues — and it is incumbent upon those who disseminate that information to explain it in a way that puts the changes into context.
Different audiences need different information delivered to them. Most consumers are not prepared to absorb medical details about infection processes, but they need to understand enough to know how to best protect themselves and their families. People who work with vulnerable populations, such as nursing home residents, need to understand more about symptoms, protecting themselves and their patients, and when to seek medical care for their patients.
Good information can help us make informed decisions about everyday behaviors to reduce our personal risk and the risk we might pose to others. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend regular hand-washing or sanitizing as the single most important thing that we can do as individuals.
Information can also help keep us from making decisions that may be harmless to us but harmful to the greater good. Masks are not much help for the average citizen to use on a regular basis — the risk is too low to matter and their effectiveness varies for a large number of reasons. And, if each of us buys a box of masks, we will take supplies needed for health care workers — putting them at risk. In vainly trying to protect ourselves, we may make matters worse for those whose help we may need most in a real pandemic.
The American people, and all people around the world, deserve good quality information so they can make informed decisions to protect themselves, their families, their communities and the world.
Our professional and elected leaders should focus on delivering that information, and we should demand it from them. One apparently authoritative source is the CDC . Another is WHO.
May each of us be informed, inform others and help tamp down misinformation and unfounded rumors. And go wash your hands, please.
• Paul Witman is an information technology management professor in the Master of Science in Information Technology program at California Lutheran University.