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India’s Other Two-Front War: Infodemic Plus Pandemic

As those in power spread half-truths, falsehoods and contradictorty advice, people are scratching their heads, wondering which Covid protocols to follow.
India’s Other Two-Front War: Infodemic Plus Pandemic

Image Courtesy: DNA India

Confusion and misinformation are the reigning deities of our information dissemination system as we gear up for the third wave of Covid-19. Mixed messaging communicated through the media and social networks is the one constant since the pandemic hit over a year ago.

Indeed, the Novel Coronavirus is still a mystery that doctors and epidemiologists all over the world are constantly trying to stay ahead of. But in India, the relentless confrontation between the scientific-medical view and pseudo-science posing as ancient wisdom has left many perplexed. To make matters worse, a mix of truths, half-truths, falsehoods and fake news has also been promoted by people in power.

The result is that there is still no clarity among ordinary folk about the basics.

Today, there are several questions with no clear-cut answers: Will there be another wave and when will it hit us? Are ancient cures more effective against the virus than “modern” medicine? How dangerous is the Delta Plus variant? Will it affect children? Can vaccines protect us from the new variants? Which is better—Covishield or Covaxin? Will one shot do? What is the ideal gap between the first and second doses of either vaccine? Are masks and social distancing necessary once you have recovered or have been vaccinated?

There are “n” number of answers being given to these questions, leaving the average citizen flummoxed. What is worse, “expert” opinions keep changing virtually every night on prime time. Given this, the knowledge and reference points about the virus for the majority are largely dictated by the channel they watch or the Whatsapp group they are part of.

Unfortunately, there is no one authority explicitly articulating the official position. In its stead, there is a hydra-headed body comprising of Union ministers and officious experts from members of the Niti Aayog to bureaucrats in the health ministry, home ministry, members of the Indian Council of Medical Research and heads of medical institutions communicating the so-called official view. All of them speak in different voices and at different times of the day. And then there are doctors of every speciality ranging from orthopaedic surgeons to cardiologists sharing their wisdom on Breaking News.

For those who fail to follow the “information” overdrive on the TV channels, there are social media platforms. So-called pundits and quacks constitute the “variant of concern” here. They have a penchant for passing on their brand of dubious ancient wisdom with videos to promote products—a powder, a mixture, or a magic cure. They specialise in spreading misinformation which makes short work of scientific medicine, doctors, and vaccines. They can also be dismissive of social distancing and the wearing of masks. Apparently, the latter prevents normal breathing and thus compromises the immune system!

We are not merely fighting a pandemic but also what experts call an infodemic.

Very often, the misinformation comes with endorsements or tacit approval from Union ministers, state governments, political leaders, and celebrities. It kicked off when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared on 24 March last year that a 21-day lockdown would vanquish the virus. His strategy was immediately applauded as one based on “sound scientific logic”. One senior public health official even elaborated that since the incubation period of the virus in the human body is 14 days, if the infection got seven more days to die out, then the cycle would break and we would conquer the pandemic. Alas, we learnt that things are not quite that simple.

Barely had the first wave subsided that the Prime Minister seized the opportunity to claim that India had defeated the virus. And his party, the BJP, unequivocally declared in February this year that India had won the battle against the Coronavirus. Such messages instilled a false sense of confidence and complacency among a public eager to take off the mask, give up social distancing, and return to normal living. For every message underlining the importance of wearing a mask, ten others debunk its use.

Ditto social distancing. Those who lay down the rules are out there among the crowds, so why should we restrict ourselves is a frequently posed question. Many also still feel that much is being made of the pandemic. Equally frightening is the fact many are not even aware of the severity of the situation. Then there are others who feel they are safe because they lead a healthy life and eat crushed garlic pods with honey every morning.

It is not just Modi but others in his government and party who are also guilty. In March, just before the second wave, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan proudly announced that India had reached “the endgame” of the fight against the pandemic. He was also present at an event where Baba Ramdev announced that his Ayurvedic formulation, Coronil, had the approval of the World Health Organisation as a “cure for Corona.” The WHO subsequently denied this. But that did not deter the Haryana government from distributing one lakh free “Coronil kits” to patients last month.

Unfortunately, despite the death and economic misery unleashed by the second wave, there is no end to those offering miracle cures. Drinking cow urine, caking the body with cow dung, and several other “natural” ways to combat the virus and keep it at bay are still doing the rounds on Whatsapp. And yet, there has been no clear-cut message from the government to eschew dubious potions and untested treatment methods.

Deceptive information and fake news promoted by people in power is a matter of concern. It does not help if the government pulls in one direction while those who run it are frequently on another tangent.

As Sumitra Badrinathan, a political scientist at the University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism pointed out in The Washington Post: “When those in power are complicit in creating and spreading falsehoods, countering them is a challenging prospect. India is not just experiencing a health crisis; it is undergoing an information crisis of massive proportions.”

A recent internet survey conducted by the Reuters Institute that covered English-speaking households in India indicated that 23% were concerned about pandemic-related misinformation spread by politicians in power and political parties. They also held social media platforms like Facebook (16%) and YouTube (14%) responsible for fake news. But for 28%, it was WhatsApp messaging that was most responsible.

Of course, the poll does not reflect the Indian reality since the vast majority who consume information are not English-speaking. Going by the latest government figures, WhatsApp has a mindboggling 53 crore users in India—the highest in the world—followed by YouTube (44.8 crores), Facebook (41 crores) and Twitter (1.5 crores). The government has been actively trying to reign in and censor content on social media. But many fear that it may only lead to selective blocking of the accounts and posts of its political rivals and critics.

The realisation that COVID-19 is a deadly disease and can affect all classes has dawned in popular perception only after the second wave. Yet, even now, random testing in the absence of symptoms has mostly failed to make sense to people, and even some state governments. And contact tracing is seen as means to harass citizens. A sizeable majority do not see wearing a mask as a necessity beyond saving them from police action. When political leaders merely hang it around their neck as a tokenism, why should ordinary folk suffer suffocation, they wonder.

And having celebrities—who earlier put out videos of banging proudly on pots and pans to drive the evil Corona away or endorsing untested magic cures—promote wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and following Covid-appropriate behaviour has a hollow ring to it. Many people wonder if they are in the promos for the money or to please the government.

Currently, the focus is on the vaccination drive. Here again, the PR effort is to present an “all is well” picture to the people. That is why we had a one-day world record of vaccinations followed by a slump from the next day onwards in several states. One can only hope that the third wave does not happen. Or will some “expert” in the establishment cleverly re-cast it as the continuation of the second wave and declare the third wave null and void!

The writer is a senior journalist and author. The views are personal.

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