On December 31, 2019, China reported a novel coronavirus outbreak which has now not only infected over 82 million people and claimed close to 1.8 million lives but has also has seen accelerated scientific research to tackle this pandemic. While the World Health Organization recognised this COVID-19 disease as a pandemic only on March 11, 2020, it was quick to realise this pandemic will transform itself into an infodemic too.
Over the period of this one year, every country witnessed an increase in misinformation related to health which highlighted the importance of focusing on better scientific communication and information dissemination. Along with health misinformation, India was presented with a unique area of misinformation wherein the disease was used to further polarise Hindu and Muslims. COVID-19 misinformation was not limited to health. From conspiracy theories, dodgy science, bogus cures, misinformation around the lockdown and fake news fuelling bigotry, BOOM wraps up five such trends.
1. Conspiracy theories around the virus
Be it the origin of the virus suggesting that the SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon or how the virus spreads, the pandemic awakened several dormant conspiracy theorists as well as led to the emergence of doctor collectives who were against how the disease was handled by many countries. Some of these doctor collectives condemned the policies of the World Health Organization, downplayed the impact of the virus, and led the anti-mask brigade. In India, a youth-led anti-mask campaign emerged after the Indian government relaxed lockdown norms but insisted that people should wear masks.
Claims that the virus is man-made were falsely attributed to Japanese Nobel Laureate Tasuku Honjo, while a Chinese scientist Li-Meng Yan went on record that she had to flee her country as she was willing to reveal that the virus was made in a lab in Wuhan. Even the latest, 5G technology was not spared. It was claimed to spread the coronavirus. Different misleading videos from China were edited to suggest that the police were killing Coronavirus patients in the country,
2. Half-baked science and bogus cures
As soon as news of the virus gained steam and made its advent into India on January 30, news about avoiding broiler chickens as they could be carriers of COVID-19 were doing the rounds on Indian social media. A bizarre claim that drinking alcohol could prevent coronavirus also started circulating.
At the onset of the pandemic in India, the Indian government shared a list of Ayurvedic and Homeopathic concoctions to consume to prevent oneself from contracting the virus without conducting any scientific studies which were questioned by several scientists and allopathic doctors. Yoga guru Ramdev's indigenous ayurvedic company Patanjali was called out for distributing its herbal product coronil as a cure for COVID-19. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a curfew for 14 hours across India, several social media users shared incorrect news that since the virus stays only for 12 hours on surfaces, this was the PM's way to eradicate the same.
Social media was also rife with claims attributing a concoction made from honey to a fictional Pondicherry university student and also suggesting that an Indian concoction known as kashayams would cure a patient suffering from COVID-19.
3. Lockdowns, government advisories and migrants
While the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, it gave impetus to fake news around migrants travelling back to their home states as well as several questions around when COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns would be relaxed in the country. Political parties and their proxies also added to misinformation - a 2019 picture of buses was shared as buses organized by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for the migrants.
As people lost their jobs and faced cuts in income, a dubious message floating on WhatsApp suggested that the government was distributing ₹5,000 as COVID-19 lockdown funds on filling a survey.
Furthermore, not only were graphics by news channels photoshopped to spread misinformation about enforcements of new lockdowns, old pictures and videos of tragic circumstances such as families dying by suicide were also passed off with the COVID-19 lockdown spin.
4. Communalising COVID-19
In the months of April and May, a congregation of a sect of Muslims- Tablighi Jamaat emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot after several attendees tested positive. This incident spawned fake news on social media targeting the sect and holding Muslims responsible for spreading the virus. A video from Karachi was passed off as a member of the Tablighi Jamaat running naked in the hospital. Old pictures and videos of Muslims offering Namaaz were shared wherein they were accused of violating the lockdown.
In Mumbai, a horde of migrants rushed to Bandra station when they heard rumours about the initiation of long-distance trains. This, however, was painted with a communal angle by several news and media outlets. This was not the only time that media channels combined the communal rift with COVID-19. The Bombay High Court reprimanded these channels for spreading propaganda in the name of these members of the Tablighi Jamaat.
5. Rise of anti-vaxxers
As the pandemic raged on, it was necessary that scientific discoveries such as vaccines would be fast-tracked. Indian officials, however, overpromised in July that an indigenous vaccine would be available by August 15 and then backtracked when the scientific community raised its voice against the same.
The fast-tracking of the vaccine has also led to the emergence of several anti-vaccination groups including doctors that are falsely claiming that the COVID-19 vaccine could alter the human DNA. These extremist groups are also trying to invoke religious sentiments by falsely stating that babies have been aborted specifically for these vaccines and that the vaccines contain cells and serum of pigs and cows.
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