I had just come back from the United Kingdom before the corona threat really hit Pakistan and have spent most of the post-lockdown period in rural Punjab. Every day, since then, has been a struggle to make those around me realize that COVID-19 is very much real but it seems all my endeavors are in vain.
When I decided to voluntarily self-isolate for a period of 14 days and refused to meet my family, but from a distance, my educated parents were angry at first but then made their peace with their stubborn daughter. These little incidents, at the beginning of March, made me realize that the government would need an effective communication strategy to tackle misinformation as well as disinformation. However, a little bit of investigation I've done over the past couple of months has made me realize how ineffective our communication strategy has really been.
Nazir Muhammad is a 48-years-old man with underlying health conditions from rural Punjab. I met him sometime in mid-April while he was standing in a long queue outside a bank to receive remittance money his son had sent him, he wasn’t wearing a mask. When I asked him why he isn’t taking precautions, his response was, “Yah corona-virus kuch ni, sari government ki sazish hay amreeka say paisay lainy ki. (This corona-virus is nothing, it’s government’s conspiracy to take funds from America [WHO]). He was also angry at the bank management for making every one stand outside in the scorching heat, allowing two people in at a time to follow the SOPs of social distancing, “Dar gay hein ya avin hi, kuch ni hay yah corona, mein to na mask pehnta hun, sub say milta hun, mujhy to kuch ni huwa, drama (They [bank management] are afraid without any reason. I don’t wear a mask and I meet everyone I know daily, nothing has happened to me. [this is just a] drama).
Muhammad isn’t alone who believes this narrative, a lot of people I spoke to in the rural part of Punjab hold the same views. Many go as far as saying that the government has advised doctors to kill people by giving them a poisonous injection. Where did this rumor start? No one knows for sure but many people I interacted with believe it like they believe the sun rises in the east.
I, fortunately, tracked down one person, a school teacher, who claims she’s been told to stay away from the government hospitals by a private doctor. “What exactly did the doctor say to you?” I asked her curiously. “He told me to stay away from the government hospital these days at every cost,” she responded. I tried approaching the said doctor but couldn’t. However, there are two reasons, that make the most sense to me, as to why a doctor would actively take part in the spread of such dangerous narrative are:
- He wants to make a profit off of the situation
- He told them to stay away from the government health facilities as they could potentially be hot-spots for further spread of COVID-19. And they decided to interpret it in their own way.
Whatever the reason may be, the consequences of these rumors are far-reaching. However, the word of the mouth isn’t the only way these rumors had propagated, some people I spoke to gathered their information from the edited/cut-down videos of government officials, they received on Whatsapp. The most widely circulated edited video was of Imran Khan’s saying:
“Corona is just like flu.”
This 5-second edited video was shared many times by renowned journalists and even Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari to make a point of how Prime Minister Imran Khan is spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and downplaying the threat.
However, an unedited video, which didn’t make it to rural Punjab, sounds like this:
“for 90% of those infected, corona-virus would be just like the flu, you’ll feel better after a couple of days...However, if our elderly will contract the virus, it can be life-threatening for them.”
When I showed them the whole video, the villagers had a different reaction. Which made me think, have we, as journalists and opposition, nitpicked over Khan’s ambiguous statement and made it even more problematic? Have we played an active role in spreading misinformation regarding COVID, though unintentionally? The answer, to my horror, is yes!
And the second most circulated video via Whatsapp network that people believed in was of an alleged doctor in a mask claiming that she is a witness to the government’s plan to kill any and everyone, who comes to the hospital in the name of coronavirus. She goes on to claim that she is no longer “invited to these [confidential] meetings” because she saved some people and refused to be a part of this ‘plan’.
Who was this girl? What health facility she is working at? Where is she from? What designation does she hold? These are the questions that immediately came to my mind, however, none of the people I spoke to seemed to care about these questions. To them, this was a proof, “a ‘lady doctor’ was finally telling the truth, the government has been working so hard to hide from them.”
When I spoke to an official of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), he told me that in a situation like these, your enemy tries to take advantage and create panic amongst masses.
“This video will create agitation among the masses and they would lose their confidence in the government and health-care sector. What can be more harmful than making people frightful of doctors and health-care professionals in a pandemic.”
I saw this theory materializing into reality right in front of my eyes when my neighbor, who had a fever, refused to go to the hospital on the same premises. When I spoke to a medical officer (MO) appointed at one of the Basic Health Units in rural Punjab, I realized that the effects of this spread of misinformation are too far-reaching.
“There are two aspects to it. One is patients with COVID symptoms would refuse to go to the hospital even if they direly need help. It would become very difficult to provide help. And it would also disrupt our figures thus disabling us to know accurately how many active cases are there or what’s our communal spread rate,” The MO said and added, “and the other aspect is if doctors are unable to save a patient despite their utmost efforts, they’d be accused of giving the patient poisonous injection by attendants. And doctors would be labeled as murderers. We already have many examples of violence against doctors at the hands of attendants or mob. ”
Taking all these factors into account, it looks like its a lose-lose situation for the authorities. So what difference could have we done to counter the misinformation? Should the government officials, including the Prime Minister, have been more precise and clear in their message as to eliminate room for any confusion or nitpicking? Could our journalists and opposition have played a more mature role? And most importantly despite realizing the consequences of intentional/unintentional promulgation of misinformation about the virus, why hasn’t the government and NDMA started a crackdown against the circulation of these videos? When I think about the narrative about COVID in our rural parts, I realize that the government has truly failed its masses by failing to control the narrative about COVID. And failing the narrative means failing to curb the spread.