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OP-ED: The other pandemic is misinformation

  • Published at 02:32 am September 17th, 2021
fake news misinformation covid-19
Misinformation can also kill BIGSTOCK

The countries with the most fake news about Covid-19 are the ones that bungled up the crisis

The truth can set you free, but first you have to find it. When it comes to reliable information on Covid-19, that’s difficult anywhere in the world, with especially deadly results in the worst affected countries. It’s no coincidence that the latest international survey found that the maximum pandemic-related “fake news” was generated in India, the US, Brazil, and Spain -- countries which have conspicuously bungled the crisis at huge cost to their citizens and future prospects.

“Prevalence and source analysis of Covid-19 misinformation of 138 countries,” which was published earlier this week, collected close to 10,000 items being circulated, and sent them for fact-checking to 94 different organizations “following a quantitative content analysis method along with descriptive statistical analysis.”

The overall results aren’t exactly surprising: “Social media (84.94%) produces the highest amount of misinformation, and the internet (90.5%) as a whole is responsible for most of the Covid-19 misinformation. Moreover, Facebook alone produces 66.87% misinformation among all social media platforms.”

But there’s an interesting twist: “India (18.07%) produced the highest amount of social media misinformation, perhaps thanks to the country’s higher internet penetration rate, increasing social media consumption, and users’ lack of internet literacy. On the other hand, countries like Turkey, the US, Brazil, and the Philippines where either political control over media is intense or political conservatism is apparent, experienced a higher amount of misinformation from mainstream media, political figures, and celebrities.”

The global nature of this entrenched problem has been amply illustrated this week, by the ongoing international hubbub after Indo-Afro-Trinidadian-American rapper Nicki Minaj tweeted to her millions of followers that “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you’re comfortable with ur decision, not bullied.”

Minaj, a professional controversialist, is now revelling in what she calls #BallGate, after the Trinidadian health minister and UK prime minister both denounced her in public (her response to the latter was to leave a voice note for Boris Johnson in a purportedly British accent, claiming to have attended Oxford with Margaret Thatcher). It’s less entertaining than it sounds, because the voice of scientific reason becomes drowned out, and more people die for no good reason.

The data is stark: The US has fallen behind Japan in the percentage of population with at least one Covid-19 vaccination dose (it still holds a rapidly dwindling edge amongst the fully vaccinated). This means the country where vaccine access is the easiest, with their availability the most ubiquitous, has officially slipped to the very bottom of the G7 in this category. 

An absolutely surreal scenario is playing out in front of our eyes. All through the American South, where vaccine resistance is at its peak, infection rates are skyrocketing. 

At the moment, the country is averaging over 1,800 Covid-19 deaths every day and well over 170,000 new cases. Meanwhile, the vaccination rate has declined to just one-fourth of what it was less than six months ago. It is now, as Joe Biden says, “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

That is not the case in India, which is most severely affected by another type of deadly pandemic: Denial and conspiracy theories about Covid-19. 

While the effect of vaccine denial is relatively less prevalent here (because supply is still only a fraction of demand, and what is needed to protect the population) the main damage is being done by the tsunami of bad information circulated by quacks and conmen on “WhatsApp University.”

One important instance where the government stood up and intervened occurred when the flamboyant, billionaire yoga guru and businessman Baba Ramdev (his Patanjali Ayurved multi-national company was valued at $35 billion in 2019) told a gathering in May that “lakhs of people have died due to taking allopathic medicines during this pandemic. Their number is far higher than those who died due to the unavailability of oxygen.”

Immediately afterwards, officials in the Indian Medical Association pointed out that Ramdev himself takes allopathic medicines when sick, but only “to mislead the public at large, he is making false and baseless accusations so that he can sell his illegal and unapproved drugs. Enough is enough.”

That is when the union health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan (he is an ENT specialist), wrote to Ramdev that his comments were disrespectful, “and hurt the sentiments of the country. Your statement on allopathy can break the morale of health care workers and weaken our fight against Covid-19.”

Vardhan wrote: “In view of the sentiments of corona warriors from across the world, I hope you will withdraw your statement.” 

The very next day, Ramdev retreated, and one item of misinformation stood corrected. We need more of the same, every single day.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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