Myths and misinformation a scourge to health care across South Asia

  • Countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka have to battle misinformation at the same time that they battle disease
  • Low literacy rates and fear contribute to the problem
  • This misinformation has reached a critical mass and is jeopardizing public health

KARACHI. Fears of vaccines, conspiracies and nefarious origins are running rampant through south Asia and making it difficult for health care systems to keep up with the needs of the population while tamping down the COVID-19 outbreak.

“As Pakistan and other south Asian nations work to stop the spread of the virus, they face another battle (against) reams of misinformation,”said social media expert and journalist Khalid Hussain. “With the pandemic starting to gain a foothold in the region, social media sites are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. It’s a trend also been seen elsewhere. Governments around the world have been urging citizens not to listen to or spread rumors about the pandemic.” 

The government of Pakistan has asked social media companies and the telecoms sector to launch awareness campaigns about misinformation and its dangers. It has also set up a WhatsApp channel where people can ask questions about the virus.

“To counter misinformation and address public concerns, the government of Pakistan has established a website to bust common myths,” said Minister of State for Health Dr. Zafar Mirza.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and several other countries in south Asia with large Muslim populations have allowed their citizens to go to mosque to perform Eid prayers by adopting social distancing and other mandatory procedures. Even then, some clerics claim Muslims would not be affected by the virus and have exhorted tens of thousands of people to gather for mass prayers despite the health risks.

The fight against misinformation is happening throughout the region.

In India, Hindu religious leaders have urged the devout to attend prayers by promising them that their faith would protect them. One religious leader in Pune, India, made a video saying it was impossible to catch the virus while praying, doubling down on the comments by saying he should be hanged if he were wrong. Police arrested him  instead of hanging him and he later made another video urging people to take the pandemic seriously and wash their hands often.

Something similar happened in neighboring Bangladesh. In one remote village, people locked themselves inside their homes because of rumors that fumigants were being sprayed from the sky to kill the virus.

In Sri Lanka, authorities warned of legal action against people who spread false information over social media and, shortly after, several people were arrested.

Pakistan is one of those countries where low literacy rates not only add to the burden of the health care sector but is contributing to rampant misinformation, which in turn leads to fear and panic.

Low literacy rates, fear and misinformation have all contributed to worsening the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. The literacy rate in Pakistan is about 59 percent while India’s is about 74 percent, although it changes significantly from state to state. In Bangladesh, about two thirds of people are literate.

The conspiracy theories are rampant. Since the first case was reported on 26 February 2020, for example, a not insignificant number of people have come to believe that the pandemic is part of a government plan to tap into more funding from international donor agencies, Dr. Nadeem Shiekh, Pakistan’s additional director of health, told Anticentric.

“This misinformation has reached a critical mass and is jeopardizing public health,” said Shiekh.

More than 65,000 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Pakistan and more than 1,600 have died. India has around 200,000 cases and 5,600 deaths. Bangladesh has recorded 52,000 cases and more than 700 deaths. Smaller Sri Lanka has only recorded 11 deaths out of around 1,700 cases.

Still, many people don’t even believe in the virus. And the misinformation comes from many quarters.

Yasir Tayyab, a 41-year-old cleric at a mosque in the town of Surjani, near the central district of Karachi, said that the virus is all fake. There is no virus like the coronavirus. It’s all about the data collection drive, like we had before in the Osama bin Laden episode.

In the hunt for bin Laden, officials collected blood samples and tracked down him down under the guise of a vaccination program in Pakistan.

And there are other conspiracy theories.

Tayyab’s wife Tahira Yasir believes that powerful people – she mentioned Microsoft Bill Gates specifically – made a vaccine in which they put mini microchip to monitor our brains. 

These are just two of the many conspiracy theories floating around.

“We are witnessing a lot of misleading information circulated on the internet, which is dangerous as well. For example, a video has been circulated that if you put onions in your pocket, you are safe from coronavirus, or if you drink hot water every hour you can eliminate coronavirus,” said Shiekh.