In Bangladesh, “Infodemic” is more Dangerous and Worrying than the Coronavirus Pandemic
The first three known cases of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) were reported in Bangladesh on 8 March 2020 by Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR). Referring to the spread of fake news around the coronavirus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) used the term “Infodemic”. Thanks to the massive usage of Internet, smart phones and social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp, misinformation and fake news related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is more viral than the virus itself. Infodemic is an informal term used to describe the wide and rapid spread of fake news and misinformation. Lack of media literacy among the people in Bangladesh aided by conspiracy theories, wrong data, false information, miracle cures, religious discrimination and unclear directions from the government caused public havoc and panic.
This article tries to identify, categorize and debunk most of the fake news and misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic - the infodemic in Bangladesh. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, FNF South Asia regional office has earlier published a piece on some of the false narratives on the origin of Covid-19; its causes, prevention, cures and their impact in India. Several of them are quite similar and are prevalent here in Bangladesh too; my colleague’s observations apply for us as well. The country is currently going through an economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. The inability to distinguish between facts and opinions has had serious impact on all aspects of life of the uninformed or misinformed citizens.
Before Covid-19 Hit Bangladesh
When China first announced the outbreak of the virus at Wuhan in December 2019, quite a few rumours started circulating about its origin and causes. For instance, Chinese people eat bats and other animals and insects, which are forbidden (haram) in Islam. Alternatively, the virus is a bio-weapon made by Bill Gates and his foundation. None of these proven yet. Several studies concluded that the virus most likely originated from bats and was transmitted to other animals and then passed on to humans and that the virus spreads through human-to-human contact.
Following many conspiracy theories, a lot of incorrect data and false information started to pop up regarding why Covid-19 would not hit Bangladesh. One postulation suggested that as a tropical country, with high temperatures and humidity, the virus is not likely to spread in Bangladesh. This theory lost its credibility with outbreak of the disease in countries like Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, which experience similar weather. A few religious leaders also started to go live, record and upload videos and interviews saying Bangladesh will stay corona-free because it is a pious Islamic country. One cleric claimed that he had a meeting with the virus in his dreams where the virus assured him that it will not kill “Good Muslims” but will only hunt down the non-believers of Islam. People used these anecdotes to advance personal agendas.
On 30 January 2020, WHO declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, it was evident that soon Covid-19 would hit Bangladesh. This is when baseless claims regarding how the virus spreads, who are more prone to infection, and miracle cures started circulating on social media. There were even rumours that bees and mosquitos act as carriers of the virus, and they are more dangerous than people who are Covid-19 positive because the virus stays longer in insects. People started believing that cold rooms, refrigerators, and meat could spread the virus, and started avoiding air-conditioned places.
That the virus affects only the older people is a myth that gained a lot of traction. The fact is that the virus affects everyone. The ability of the carrier to fight the disease depends on the person’s immunity. Soon it became clear that many carriers of the virus were asymptomatic. This only made the social distancing more important than ever. Young people tend to have stronger immunity than older people do, but they can transmit the virus to the elderly without realizing. People with weaker immunity, underlying health issues and comorbidities are at a greater risk, but people of all ages including infants can catch the coronavirus. In the same vein, the misconception that Covid-19 affects the rich only and not the poor, made some noise.
Sunlight can kill the virus, UV rays and the heat from the sun can destroy the capabilities of coronavirus. Following this news, more unsolicited advice and suggestions such as having hot water with lemon, hot water with vinegar, honey, ginger, garlic, black cumin, cloves, black pepper, and various kind of tea evolved as to how keeping oneself safe from the virus. While these may help relieve one from the discomfort resulting from the virus, they do not play a role in prevention. One particular rumour spread like wildfire in rural areas; coronavirus can never catch you if you eat Indian Pennywort (Centella Asiatica, Thankuni in Bengali). The natural herbs do help in improving health and immunity system, but none can protect us from the virus. The obvious result was that, prices of these otherwise regular items increased due to high demand!
After Covid-19 Hit Bangladesh
WHO declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, three days after Bangladesh had their first reports of coronavirus cases. This lead to another surge of fake news and misinformation. Stories backed with no scientific evidence such as breathing tests (i.e. Spirometry) and thermal scanners could detect coronavirus started surfacing on the internet.
On 18 March 2020, Bangladesh reported its first coronavirus death. The government announced a nationwide lockdown from 23 March to 30 May 2020, which was later increased till the first week of June. The Bangladesh government referred to the lockdown as ‘general holidays’ which created confusion amongst public who were unaware of the severity of the disease. Few took the lockdown as an opportunity to visit their families and relatives, getting married and even go on vacation!
Even now, people do not wear masks and do not maintain the minimum distance in crowded place. Statements about coronavirus and vague directives on how to effectively deal with it by some Ministers and leaders of the government, made headlines to most prominent newspapers, but did not help the cause.
Even though large social gatherings were discouraged, public transportation shut down, businesses and educational institutions temporarily closed, and people started working from home; the number of new positive cases and deaths kept going up. Furthermore, some religious leaders again urged people to attend mass prayers to call for an end to the pandemic and participate in large religious gatherings so that the virus could go away by divine intervention. Some of them openly prescribed religious remedies to cure the disease.
As the vaccine or a cure for Covid-19 remains a work in progress, many cures with zero scientific went viral through social media. One particular Bangladeshi researcher claimed that ethanol/methanol vapour could kill coronavirus and advised people to consume these chemicals along with water. Another stated that a 3-day long homeopathic course that could cure Covid-19. More bizarre stories followed: A video uploaded on YouTube showed a person claim that he had created a vaccine based on a dream where he learnt the techniques and necessary ingredients; another video went viral on Facebook where a person talked about an infant being born, uttering a remedy for coronavirus, and passed away right after. Without any proper evidence, many doctors also claimed that some medicines and vaccines were working and helpful in treating Covid-19. None of them is a full proof cure yet. Meanwhile, people started stocking up these medicines and pharmacies ran out of them.
A lot of misinformation spread in the meantime to disrupt democracy and governance in Bangladesh. There were rumours of dead bodies dumped and thrown off into rivers and seas, real data remains hidden and manipulated data shared with public. Opinions and forecasts from doctors on total numbers of deaths were misused to create an unrest among citizens. Statements from the Prime Minister about certain decisions regarding the virus misrepresented on various news portals. In addition, fake photos with no relation to this pandemic used to create controversial stories.
The government of Bangladesh has taken few initiatives, using both digital and traditional platforms, to circulate authentic news and information regarding the coronavirus. Every day updates on Covid-19 shared on television by the Ministry of Health. Television advertisements, radio advertisements and auto voice message on mobile phones are running continuously to spread awareness on staying safe. Websites, chat bots mobile applications and social media channels are being used to actively curb the misinformation as well.
The Bangladesh government is now strictly monitoring the fake news. Actions and measures are taken under the Digital Security Act 2018 to counter and punish individuals responsible for violating the act by spreading fake news. The Cyber Security and Crime Division is also playing a predominant role in this regard. The Information Ministry announced that it has formed a unit to monitor social media and various television outlets for rumours regarding the COVID-19 cases.
However, the government is also using the law to crack down on free speech by targeting and attacking journalists, academics, doctors, activists, students, and silencing those who express concerns over the government’s handling of the pandemic. Questions raised about government transparency, responsibility and disclosing data, not taken as constructive criticisms on a positive note by the authority. Instead taking them as negative agendas against the ruling party. Given the weak health infrastructure of Bangladesh, many eyebrows raised to the decision of not giving testing permission to private hospitals and laboratories until very recently. The concerned teams are not using the law properly to address those spreading fake news. Rather, most arrests are against those who are rightfully criticising the government for its failures, like journalists, artists and cartoonists.
The government issued a circular on 25 March, where they assigned 15 officials to monitor each television channel for “rumours” and “propaganda” regarding Covid-19. The circular was later expanded by the Information Ministry, such that the officials will not only monitor the private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media.
Most fake news on coronavirus relies on social media platforms to produce, release and spread using fabricated, manipulated, imposter, misleading, false context, satire and parody contents. According to Dr. Abdul Kabil Khan, Assistant Professor at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and former Mobile Journalism (MOJO) Specialist at Prothom Alo - a leading Bengali Newspaper, “Misinformation is mostly spread by modern digital channels, whereas traditional broadcasting channels are more careful on the information they disseminate. However, there are instances where broadcasting media are channelling misinformation as well. Misinformation is making it impossible to maintain essential practices such as social distancing and wearing a mask.”
Organizations such as BDFactCheck, Fact-Watch, Fake News Checker, and Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI) are working diligently on countering fake news and providing media and information literacy. Facebook launched a third-party fact-checking program in Bangladesh as part of its ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of misinformation by reviewing stories, including photos and videos, and improving the quality and authenticity of stories in the news feed.
I suggest reading the two publications produced by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom to know more about “What Can Be Done to Counter Fake News” and “Deepfakes & Disinformation”.
According to a report by the Guardian – a leading UK daily, researchers found that misinformation and fake news on social media during infectious disease outbreaks can cost lives. A large population of Bangladesh cannot differentiate facts from fiction. Most of these internet users share all sorts of disinformation and rumours on Facebook, YouTube, online news portals, without crosschecking it with valid sources because they do not even know how to verify the information. Another study by East Anglia University, supported by Public Health England, researchers stated that efforts to disseminate correct information across social media and correcting the false stories could save lives. The government should establish media-friendly environment ensuring a free flow of information and formalize media literacy education at the school level.
Before you click the share button, take a pause, read the whole story instead of just reading the headline, go through credible sources to authenticate images and verify the story.
Try to understand the purpose of the story and then make your decision. Social media users should only share and promote information that is true, authentic, verified, credible and of good intent.