Misinformation Epidemic: Conspiracy theories, social media hoaxes keep suspcted COVID19 patients in Parbhani away from doctors

District case count has reached 1200 this week. Doctors worry the case load could be manifold higher as residents are not approaching the doctors owing to some unfounded allegations of ‘misdiagnosis’, ‘stealing of organs’ and some real fear of family members getting ‘picked-up’ for quarantine.

ATIKH RASHID

In Maharashtra’s Parbhani district, rumours and conspiracy theories linked to COVID19 being spread of social media is keeping potential patients away from clinics, making invisible transmission of the coronavirus difficult to detect and control. The problem is turning severe by the day with no concerted efforts from the administration to tackle the issue of misinformation.

As per doctors and local residents, citizens with COVID19 linked symptoms are preferring to stay at home and suffer than to seek medical attention owing to fear of doctors misdiagnosing the illnesses as COVID19 “to claim subsidy funds” or “are killing the patients and stealing the organs” – as claimed in viral social media messages. The fear is so strong that those suffering from other, unrelated illnesses too are reportedly preferring to stay back and suffer at home rather than see a doctor.

As the detections were very few in the district in the first few months of the pandemic (until end of June, Parbhani had about 100 confirmed infections), the prevailing feeling among the locals was that the stringent measures of the government were ‘much trouble for nothing’. With now rise in the detections – with the district clocking 1200 cases by August 12 – the narrative has shifted to “deliberately misdiagnosis”. (false) posts on social media are fuelling such feelings further.

“It’s true that residents who have Covid-19 related symptoms are not approaching the health system. They come out to us only after the trouble becomes severe and too much to hold back,” says Dr Ravi Shinde of Varad Hospital, the most popular private hospital in the town. “People here -especially Muslims – are believing all kinds of conspiracy theories against the health system. At present about two potential Covid-19 patients come to me per day. I suspect there could be about 250-300 symptomatic patients in the town but they are not approaching us. This is a potentially dangerous situation,” said Dr Shinde.

Misinformation epidemic

Viral social media messages terming Covid-19 pandemic as a hoax created by doctors and the government for nefarious purposes; that hospitals are interested in increasing Covid count as they are getting Rs 1.50 lakh cash subsidy per patient from the government; messages urging the citizens not to visit doctors as Covid-19 is “just a flu” or those listing medicines for home treatment of Covid-19 infections are being shared widely and very little is being done by the administration to debunk them.

Misinformation and rumours propagated through social media is proving to be a big headache for health workers in the interiors. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

“Is Corona real? I don’t believe it is,” Bajirao Jadhav, an auto-rickshaw driver who ferries dozens of passengers between Pathri and Rampuri every day. “I am having cough for two-three days but I’m not going to a doctor because doctors are diagnosing each and everyone with corona,” he says.

“The disease must have been a reality in China or America, but it doesn’t exist here. We are tough people. Even those who were taken to the hospital as Covid patients were hale and hearty. They didn’t have so much as a fever or cough,” said Akbar Khan, another resident of Pathri.

As per Dr Shinde, many of his patients were afraid to go for a Covid-19 test for fear of their relatives being taken away for quarantine or that the dead body would not be returned to them for honourable last rites.

Dr Syed Jubair, who has a clinic in Parbhani town, that the novelty of the disease and the fact that the treatment protocol for patients and potential patients and “systematic targeting of a certain community in the initial period of the pandemic” has created fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“Every day I receive dozens of calls of patients who say they have Covid-19 symptoms but are self-treating themselves. They are too afraid to go to a hospital because of fear created by social media that they will be injected with poison or their organs will be stolen. Most of the patients approach doctors when their blood saturation goes down considerably – say below 70 per cent. This is pushing up the morality rate,” said Dr Jubair.

Of the 1255 residents of Parbhani district who were diagnosed with Covid-19, 63 have lost their lives. The mortality rate of 5 per cent in Parbhani is much higher than the national rate of 2 per cent and state rate of 3.5 per cent.

District Collector Deepak Muglikar, however, rubbishes these “observations” that citizens are afraid to reach out to health authorities

“There’s absolutely no truth in these claims. They are not hiding it. They are coming straight away to doctors. Apart from this, we are surveying various groups and localities and haven’t found such an indication. To reduce the fear -if any – of forced quarantine, we have adopted a policy of allowing home isolation of asymptomatic patients. We will publicise this,” said Muglikar. He said that to detect unreported infection, the district administration has launched a ‘antigen testing’ programme under which hundreds of traders, shopkeepers and others are being checked randomly. “We have checked 9500 persons in last 15 days,” said Muglikar.

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