Odisha CM’s Twitter handle falls victim to fake news on Oxford University

After several people started questioning the authenticity of the claim of the government, the CMO’s Twitter handle deleted one post which referred to the praise by Oxford University.
File photo: Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik.(PTI)
File photo: Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik.(PTI)
Updated on Oct 09, 2020 09:42 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar | ByDebabrata Mohanty | Edited by Sparshita Saxena

A spate of news articles on a study by a team of researchers at the Oxford University, UK, and the Northeastern University, US, on the Odisha model of Covid-19 may turn out to be fake. The news was also shared by the official Twitter handle of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik but the post was deleted.

On Thursday, a few websites reported that a study by UK’s Oxford University and the Northeastern University of the United States praised the Ganjam district of Odisha and Dharavi slums of Mumbai for their strategy to deal with the pandemic. First reported by a little-known website called pledgetimes.com on October 8, the report described how a study by the Oxford University found Ganjam in Odisha and Dharavi slums in Mumbai managed to “imprison Corona”.

The news item did not mention the title of the study but spoke of how Ganjam and Dharavi managed to control the surge in Covid-19 cases trying to pass off the success as the findings of the study. Several news portals and websites of local newspapers picked up the story with each of them repeating that “Oxford University study praised the Ganjam and Dharavi model of fighting the pandemic”.

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When asked on Twitter to post the link of the study, the CMO Twitter handle did not reply. However, a senior official of Odisha government later pointed out to a study titled ‘Crowding and the shape of Covid-19 epidemics’ by the Oxford University and the Northeastern University that was published in the highly-respected “Nature Medicine” journal on October 5. The study said small, close-knit communities are at high risk for rapid, intense Covid outbreaks especially if they haven’t yet experienced outbreaks of Covid-19. The study showed that whether Covid outbreaks come to a fast, dramatic peak or whether they are long and drawn-out is more closely related to city layout and social structures than city size and density.

The paper, ‘Crowding and the shape of Covid-19 epidemics’ used epidemiological data from Chinese cities and Italian provinces, climate and population data, and the response to local interventions as measured by human mobility and Covid-19. Aggregated Mobility Research Dataset was used to identify drivers of transmission and create a model to predict the risk of high-peak outbreaks based on similar data from 310 cities around the world.

While several websites claimed that the study praised the Ganjam and Dharavi model of dealing with the pandemic, none of these claims was found in the report whose central hypothesis was how unaffected area can see a rapid peak in cases when individuals had high rates of contact within social units, such as households, care homes and prisons.

The study also did not include Ganjam as it selected only 310 urban centres from the European Commission Global Human Settlement Urban Centre Database. To ensure global coverage, up to five most populous cities in each country were selected including Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai.

An e-mail sent to the study’s lead authors Samuel V Scarpino, Oliver G Pybus and Moritz UG Kraemer, seeking reply whether the paper praised any particular model of controlling the pandemic, did not elicit any response.

Ganjam, which saw an influx of over 5 lakh migrant workers from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and other parts of India after lockdown, had become a Covid-19 hotspot by late July when it reported around 10,000 cases. Apart from the returning migrants, the compartment-like dwelling housing of the people in the district contributed to the surge. Later, intensive door-to-door screening of people with Covid-19 symptoms and quick treatment brought the numbers down. Though it recorded the highest Covid-19 casualty of 221, the active caseload has come down too.

Ganjam district collector Vijay Amrita Kulange, whose Twitter handle too posted a tweet talking of the praise from Oxford University over its handling of the epidemic, said he has not seen the study. “The Oxford University people may have done the study independently. But no one has contacted me for the study,” said Kulange.

After several people started questioning the authenticity of the claim of the government, the CMO’s Twitter handle deleted one post which referred to the praise by Oxford University.

This is not the first time when well-known, verified Twitter handles have fallen victims to fake news. In August this year, Odisha Governor Ganeshi Lal and Union ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Pratap Sarangi congratulated IAF wing commander Nikhil Rath for a feat he never accomplished.

While all of them took to Twitter to congratulate Wing Commander Rath for being “selected for the country’s first manned space mission Gaganayan” scheduled for 2022, none of them had checked the authenticity of the information. Though Rath had been included among the 25 pilots shortlisted in 2019 for Gaganayan, he never made it to the four candidates who were finally selected for the mission.

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