New Delhi: Misinformation, rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic have been spreading in at least 25 languages in 87 countries, according to a new study. Most of the rumours were identified from India, while the US, China, Spain, Indonesia and Brazil also had their share of misinformation, the report said.
The study, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Monday, said out of the 2,276 reports for which text ratings were available, claims in 1,865 of them (around 82 per cent) were found to be false. Out of 2,311 reports related to the novel coronavirus, 89 per cent were classified as rumours, 7.8 per cent were conspiracy theories and 3.5 per cent were stigma.
“Claims were related to illness, transmission and mortality (24%), control measures (21%), treatment and cure (19%), cause of disease including the origin (15%), violence (1%), and miscellaneous (20%),” the study noted.
The report, through a bar graph, showed most rumours were reported from India, while the US led in incidents of conspiracy theories and stigma.
It was conducted between 31 December 2019 and 5 April 2020. A team of social scientists, medical doctors, and epidemiologists from various institutions in Bangladesh, Australia, Thailand and Japan collected and reviewed the infodemics. The researchers followed and examined Covid-related claims and reports circulating on online platforms, including fact-checking agency websites, social media sites Facebook and Twitter, as well as online newspapers, and their impact on public health.
Rumours include healing properties of cow dung, urine
The study defined a rumour as any “unverified and instrumentally relevant claims, statements, and discussion centering COVID-19 circulated in online platforms”. Stigma was described as a “socially constructed phenomenon through which a person is directly or indirectly labeled by their illness, exposures, travel history, and ethic descents that further led to negative actions and discrimination”, while conspiracy theories were defined as “statements, claims, and discussion of various theories related to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and its malicious goals”.
Among all the parameters tracked, rumour was the most prevalent. Most of these were related to illness, transmission and mortality, followed by interventions focusing on infection prevention and control measures. Claims such as ‘Coronavirus is a snake flu’, ‘Mobile phones can transmit coronavirus’ and ‘Cow urine and cow dung can cure coronavirus’ were some of the prevalent rumours, according to the report.
“There were multiple reports of physical harassment and violent attacks toward healthcare workers, people of Asian origins, people who were quarantined, or people who were evacuated from Wuhan,” the study noted. It said that the study identified 26 episodes of stigma related to violence. There were also reports of self-stigma associated death in which people killed themselves thinking they had coronavirus.
Citing a case of self-stigma in India, the report said, a man killed himself because of a misconception that he had coronavirus infection. “The family members of the deceased mentioned that the person had a feeling of guilt and shame of contracting COVID-19 that he thought the virus would have unwittingly transmitted to family members along with an impression of how the society will react to that.”
The report cited many other examples too. One of them was how 800 people in different parts of the world died due to a popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill. Around 5,876 were hospitalised due to this misinformation and 60 developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus.
“Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines. Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the Covid-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation,” the report noted.