Doctors demand government call out medical misinformation after acting PM says ‘facts are contentious’ | Australia news
The peak body for Australia’s doctors has called on the federal government to call out medical misformation after the acting prime minister said “facts sometimes are contentious” when refusing to rebuke a controversial Coalition MP who has made unproven claims about the coronavirus.
The acting PM, Michael McCormack, was on Tuesday accused of embracing Donald Trump-style post-truth politics after he declined to criticise Craig Kelly who said making children wear masks was akin to child abuse.
Kelly has previously championed the use of hydroxycholoroquine to treat Covid despite the most reputable global studies finding it was ineffective as a treatment and could have severe and even deadly side effects.
The Australian Medical Association vice president, Dr Chris Moy, called on McCormack and Scott Morrison to counter misinformation from politicians, celebrities and others who were “torching the foundation of community health and science”.
“Hopefully we can get the leaders being very strong and clear in their advice and strong about supporting science,” Moy told Guardian Australia.
In the absence of that, he said, it was time to start “looking at other ways” of tackling misinformation such as the algorithms used by social media companies to show people content in their news feeds.
“We need to do something about social media because some of that information is actually really perverting the foundational aspects of health and science,” Moy said.
“The AMA tries not to get involved in politics, we really try to bring the community along with us by providing information which is above that political debate and to provide information that is trustworthy.
“It is frustrating when there is information that is provided which is incorrect and is potentially dangerous to the public.”
Both McCormack and Morrison have defended MPs right to “freedom of speech”. But Moy said “my concern is that free speech seems to include information that is false and not at all based on scientific grounds”.
The medical association on Tuesday called on the Morrison government to invest in long-term and robust “online advertising” to counter health misinformation.
“The internet has the potential to significantly magnify health misinformation campaigns, as people can easily absorb misinformation delivered directly to them through advertising, celebrity influencers, and people in positions of power,” AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said in a statement.
“We have seen this with the anti-vaccination movement, and the countless conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic that circulate constantly on the internet.”
Kelly posted on his Facebook page at 1.40am on Tuesday that the results of a published study into mask-wearing by children during the pandemic showed the impacts were as bad as child abuse.
“What other conclusion can be drawn from this first ever published study, other than that forcing children to wear masks is causing massive physical & psychological harm – that can only be defined as child abuse,” Kelly wrote.
Australian health authorities generally have made exceptions for young children. For example, under the NSW mask mandate, authorities say children 12 years and under are exempt from wearing face masks “but are encouraged to wear masks where practicable”. Children under 12 are also exempt from Brisbane’s mask mandate and were exempt during Victoria’s mask mandate.
The research by a German university found a range of impacts had been reported by children, including suffering headaches and being less cheerful, Kelly said.
International health advice has repeatedly found mask wearing to be an effective way of controlling the spread of Covid-19.
McCormack on Tuesday answered a question about Kelly spreading misinformation by saying: “Facts sometimes are contentious and what you might think is right, somebody else might think is completely untrue. That is part of living in a democratic country.”
“You might look out there and say the sky is blue, and I could see from here it’s grey, but if we go out from under this rotunda, there are probably blue patches,” he told reporters in Townsville.
“There are a lot of subjective things. I was asked about a colleague who puts material on Facebook, well some of what my colleague puts up on Facebook is very much true, but the people on the Twittersphere don’t like it. Toughen up I say. People have different views from time to time.”
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, told reporters in Melbourne that although “there’ll be very different views we listen to our medical advisers”.
Instead of censuring Kelly, Hunt criticised commentators who had predicted more deaths and shortages of ventilators in Australia, estimates which did not come to pass due to restrictions to prevent spread of Covid.
Asked about Kelly’s view that ivermectin was more effective than Covid vaccines, Hunt said: “I do believe the vaccine is necessary.”
The Morrison government has previously shut down attempts by Labor to censure the controversial MP over his comments and Kelly stands by his advocacy for the drug.
“I am not in favour of censorship,” McCormack said when talking about social media companies removing users or posts. “I am a former newspaper editor and journalists know that they have the right to free speech.”
The Labor health spokesman, Chris Bowen, said “facts are facts” and Australia had “done well through this medical crisis because we’ve listened to the experts, the chief medical officers and the health officers and the TGA”.
“Craig Kelly is a menace, and at every turn, Scott Morrison, and now Michael McCormack, the acting prime minister, have failed to call him out,” Bowen told reporters.
The Greens said on Tuesday that Trump-style politics was “poison to democracy” and if this was the direction the Coalition was heading “it bodes terribly for the future of Australian politics”.
On Tuesday evening, Liberal senator Gerard Rennick argued that only 909 Australians had died from Covid, less than the 4,124 who died from influenza and pneumonia in 2019, and he noted that no lockdowns had been imposed to fight swine flu.
“Why is the Labor Party, the media [and] health bureaucrats imposing much harsher measures now given the severity of swine flu, rather than rely on the health system as they did back in 2009?” he said on Twitter.
McCormack is acting prime minister this week while Scott Morrison is on leave.