Chandigarh: Punjab is not just battling the Covid-19 pandemic, but also wild rumours about the disease that have fuelled opposition to testing and admission to hospitals in most villages.
Rumours about illegal harvesting of organs from bodies of coronavirus patients and doctors falsely declaring people Covid-positive have scared villagers, leading them to boycott tests.
Such canards circulated through social media platforms since the last two-three months have also led to protests against and attacks on health workers visiting villages to collect samples for testing.
The state government has cracked down on the rumour-mongers by blocking several social media accounts and lodging FIRs, including against an MLA, and also circulated videos to allay people’s fears and dispel misinformation on Covid testing. It has even launched an awareness campaign earlier this month to counter the rumours.
Sarpanches across Punjab are urging people to get tested and avoid rumours to prevent the #COVID19 pandemic from spreading.
— Government of Punjab (@PunjabGovtIndia) September 4, 2020
But the misinformation seem to have stymied Punjab’s efforts to control the spread of the virus as villagers are still scared to get themselves tested.
The state government has been holding awareness drives across villages to quell people’s fears, but officials believe more such initiatives need to be held before health workers go there to conduct tests.
Punjab has one of the worst Covid fatality rates in the country at 2.98 per cent, way above the national average of 1.59 per cent.
The state even beats some of the worst-hit states such as Maharashtra (2.7%), Gujarat (2.6%), Delhi (2%), Karnataka (1.5%), Tamil Nadu (1.6%) and Andhra Pradesh (0.9%) in terms of the death rate, according to central government data.
As of Thursday, Punjab has a total of 1,05,220 cases and 3,066 deaths.
‘They want to take our organs away’
The government might have taken action to counter rumours on Covid, but such misinformation has taken a firm hold on the villagers.
Maninder Singh, a resident of Kangra village of Batala, asked: “If there is no cure for coronavirus, why should we get admitted in hospitals?”
The mistrust in the government’s treatment and isolation system runs so deep that villagers even accused health staff of “killing” their relatives in the name of treating them for Covid.
Sukhwinder Singh of Dholewal village in Ludhiana alleged that doctors killed his nephew. “I can never forget my nephew’s screams from a government hospital over the phone. He didn’t die of Corona, they killed him,” he told ThePrint.
“My nephew got typhoid on 6 June due to which he faced breathlessness. Health officials (of a Dholewal hospital where he was admitted initially) feared that it was coronavirus.”
Singh added that he was shifted from Dholewal to Patiala’s Rajindra Hospital and was moved to a Covid-19 ward, where he died after a few days.
“Whenever he would speak to us over the phone, he’d ask us to take him from there and cried,” said Singh.
Patiala resident Avtar Singh, who is also a village panchayat member, told ThePrint that they only want to admit us “to hospitals to take our organs away”.
Avtar even claimed that he has seen “how bodies were secretly taken from hospitals to the mortuary (for organ harvesting)”.
“Health teams admit villagers to take their organs and lie about Covid-19 infection because they think they won’t understand,” he alleged.
The rumours have led many village panchayats across districts to pass resolutions, stating that government health teams will not be allowed to test asymptomatic individuals, who did not want to be tested.
For example, on 28 August, the panchayat of Smalsar village in Moga district passed a resolution in this regard. The next day, on 29 August, Banbhaura village in Sangrur did the same, while Jakhlan village in the district also passed a similar resolution the same day against allowing health workers to collect samples.
But the government’s awareness drives seem to be working to some extent in some villages as this week four panchayats of Malerkotla sub-division in Sangrur reversed their stands against testing.
The villages passed new resolutions, pledging to cooperate with health teams after a few members of the panchayat met SDM Vikramjeet Singh Panthey, who held counselling sessions with the villagers.
Farmer leader Darshan Pal Singh said there is a fear among villagers to get tested for sure, but “I think it’s also important for the government to not force anyone to get tested”.
Amit Kumar, in-charge of Punjab Covid data, told ThePrint the positivity rate in urban areas is 11 per cent, while it is about 7-8 per cent in the rural areas.
Rumours scared health workers too
One of the first incidents of attacks on medical teams fuelled by social media rumours took place in Sangrur in August.
Residents of a village in the district pelted a team of health workers with stones and even shouted ‘Go back, we don’t want to get tested’.
Health teams in a Patiala village also faced resistance earlier this month, district civil surgeon Harish Malhotra told ThePrint.
In Malerkotla sub-division, medical teams had to be provided with security when they went there on 2 September to collect samples, government officials said.
The rumours have not just instilled fear among villagers, but ironically among health workers too.
In Sahnewal village of Ludhiana, staff in the senior medical officer’s team, who are tasked with collecting samples, are reluctant to get tested.
Asked about their issues with Covid testing, one of the staffers, Dr Gurpreet Kaur, said she fears isolation from family members.
“I will have to go under quarantine, and family and children will have to be left to themselves (if she tests positive for Covid),” she said.
Her colleague Dr Rajinder Kaur said the “videos (on Covid rumours) on social media have scared her too”.
She even said that when she got fever earlier this month, she “didn’t feel the need to get tested”.
“I get a fever every year around this time, so I felt it’s the same thing…”
Govt action and the way forward
Earlier this month, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh asked all MLAs and ministers to counter such rumour-mongering.
The state government has also been trying to make use of social organisations like Mahila Arogya Samitis, Village Health and Sanitation Committees, Panchyati Raj institutions and NGOs to keep such rumours in check.
Punjab Health Minister Balbir Sidhu told ThePrint, “We have initiated criminal proceedings against people spreading such rumours — be it a news firm abroad, or any individual.”
The minister alleged that “AAP is also behind the spread of such rumours”.
He, however, said, “Things have improved now since our teams are visiting villages to clear this misconception. The worst is over.”
In an effort to dispel the rumours, Rajinder Singh, an official of the Ludhiana health department, said: “People think we are making money out of Covid-19. It’s a myth.
“No organs are being taken. Whoever is admitted to hospital for coronavirus treatment is strictly kept in isolation and sent back home once the report comes negative, and post-mortem (of Covid victims) is done anyway. So it’s all there in black and white,” he added.
Government officials also admit that these rumours have hindered their efforts to tackle the virus.
Rajesh Bhaskar, state nodal officer for Covid-19, told ThePrint that rumour-mongering has had a “very adverse impact” as people who were earlier willing to get tested are now reluctant to do so in the fear of getting hospitalised.
He added that directions were given earlier this month to set up ‘rumour registries’ in every district and to probe every rumour against Covid testing.
Officials also pointed out the drawbacks of social media under such trying times.
Dr K.K. Talwar, advisor to the Punjab government on Covid-19 management, said: “The misinformation among people has highlighted the ill-effects of social media during such sensitive times.
“While it is not to say that the government health infrastructure needs to be improved, the lack of awareness among people combined with rumours has delayed hospital admissions and the number of deaths speak for themselves,” he added.
Talwar suggested that more awareness camps should be held in villages before health teams go there to collect samples.
Centre’s report also blames rumours
A report by the two-member central government team that visited Punjab around 10 days ago, stated that the government’s policy on testing gave a fertile ground to rumours due to which its Covid-19 management has suffered.
The team submitted the report to the state government last week, said an official in Punjab government’s Covid-19 advisory team.
The report stated that to increase its Covid testing, the state government gave sampling targets to field health officials. Following this, health officials at some places went overboard to meet the targets and started collecting samples, according to the report.
The report also pointed out that the state’s contact tracing was not up to the mark.
At least 120 FIRs lodged for spreading rumours
As part of its crackdown against those fuelling rumours on organ harvesting and other misinformation, the Punjab Police has got 38 Facebook, 49 Twitter and 21 YouTube accounts/links blocked earlier this month, according to a police statement.
The police had also flagged 151 accounts/links of Facebook, 100 of Twitter, four of Instagram and 37 of YouTube with the respective platforms.
At least 120 FIRs have been registered so far across Punjab, including against Lok Insaf Party leader and MLA Simarjeet Singh Bains, for allegedly spreading Covid rumours.
On 7 September, Bains was booked for allegedly misguiding people through a video clip, stating that face masks are not necessary.
Police have also arrested a Ludhiana resident for allegedly uploading a post about human organ trafficking at Rajindra Hospital.
Anchors of Fastway TV USA and Fastway News, headquartered in Faizabad, have been booked for spreading misinformation about ASHA workers, the statement added.
Punjab DGP Dinkar Gupta had said in the statement that the police department’s Bureau of Investigations had taken up the matter of blocking 45 social media links with the cyber law division of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Police officials told ThePrint the state approached the ministry on 10 September.
ThePrint reached Gupta via phone calls and messages for a comment, but there was no response until the time of publication of this report.
Officials also said that a look-out circular was issued almost a fortnight ago for one Satinder Singh, currently residing in Vienna in Austria.
“Satinder posted fake videos, and asked people in Punjab to stop visiting hospitals for Covid treatment. The look-out notice seeks to arrest him to face trial as soon as he sets foot in the country,” said a police official.