Pandemic rumour-mongering led to deaths, injuries and violence: Analysis

India, the United States, China, Spain, Indonesia, and Brazil, were the countries where such phenomena were most prominent, said the peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Doctors protest violence against medical workers in Hyderabad.
Doctors protest violence against medical workers in Hyderabad.
Updated on Aug 15, 2020 04:09 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic has fed at least 2,000 rumours, conspiracy theories and stigmatizing posts that were shared in 25 languages across 87 countries, where they have led to hundreds of deaths, thousands of hospital admissions, and triggered acts of violence, according to an analysis published on Monday.

India, the United States, China, Spain, Indonesia, and Brazil, were the countries where such phenomena were most prominent, said the peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Some rumours were harmless. They included the ones that propagated drinking cow urine, or camel urine spiked with lemon juice, to prevent Covid-19.

Others were not. Like the one that prescribed drinking methanol to cure Covid-19; it has been linked to 800 deaths, some 5,876 hospital admissions and 60 cases of “complete blindness”, the study found.

Stigma against healthcare workers and people of Asian ethnicity were linked to at least 26 violent attacks until April 5, said the report on the tide of misinformation that the World Health Organisation has called an “infodemic”.

The study analysed 2,276 Covid-19-related reports on news websites and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter between December 31, 2019 and April 5 2020, and found 1,856 claims to be false (82%), 204 correct (9%), 176 misleading (8%), and 31 unproven (1%).

“The most common media platforms were Facebook and Twitter. We did not analyse whether they vary by media platforms across regions or countries,” said lead author Mohammed Saiful Islam of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, and School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, on email.

Managing rumours, dispelling misinformation and conspiracy theories are essential to pandemic response, experts.

“Countering misinformation requires quick and easily comprehensible clarifications communicated by credible figures through a variety of channels. Conventional as well as social media must be utilised for crisp expert communication. Regulatory measures must also be used to curb the spread of malicious misinformation even while correcting misguided persons,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India.

Among rumoured Covid-19 prevention and cures were eating garlic, Vitamins C and D and medicinal herbs, keeping the throat moist, and avoiding spicy food. Popular drinking cures that were propagated were bleach, alcohol, tea, cow urine (India), and camel urine with lime (Saudi Arabia). Holding one’s breath for more than 10 seconds to self-diagnose Covid-19 infection was also suggested in a widely shared post.

“Health communication must be simple in wording, transparent in adhering to available evidence, willing to accept uncertainty where it exists but building confidence in science as a trustworthy resource to resolve uncertainty and find solutions. Public health experts must also be open to new evidence and self correction, so that they are not seen as doggedly dogmatic,” said Dr Reddy.

Conspiracy theories were more common in China, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the study found. The theories that went viral included one according to which Covid-19 being a bioweapon made in China, a virus manufactured by international agencies to sell vaccines, and a conspiracy against the culture of some religious cities in Iran and the Middle East, found the study.

Infodemics in the past led to violence, mistrust, and social disturbances. Health workers were accused of deliberately spreading Ebola and attacked in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019; AIDS denialism led to 330,000 deaths in South Africa in the early 2000s; and the Zika virus was called a biological weapon during the 2015–2016 outbreaks in Brazil.

“The government should run media surveillance to identify misinformation in real-time and correct that information with scientific evidence… Since social media is the platform through which misinformation spreads so quickly, policymakers should also use this platform to spread correct information. Health agencies should engage the local community, particularly young people, to spread correct information,” Islam said.


    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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