India’s Epidemic of False COVID-19 Information

On April 4, three days after the start of the Kumbh Mela, when millions of Hindu pilgrims gathered in Haridwar city to bathe in the Ganges, servers of one of India’s most popular online health services saw a surge in searches with an alarming pattern . The myUpchar website is a destination for residents of India’s smaller cities, where doctors and healthcare providers have long been in short supply. Every day more people came over with questions COVID-19.

When the second wave of the virus flooded India and hospital beds and oxygen became scarce, visitors to the site searched desperately for drugs allegedly used to treat the disease: Fabiflu, Remdesivir, Azithromycin, Ivermectin, Doxycycline. Then, on April 28th, those search terms were all overshadowed by a factor of three by requests for an obscure homeopathic nasal spray. The popularity of the treatment stunned Manuj Garg, the website’s co-founder, who had never heard of it. Then he saw a viral WhatsApp clip of a sick old man lying on its side, his finger in an oximeter. A nurse seated next to him made a sham claim: The nasal spray was a miracle cure that eliminated the need for oxygen. “We gave him the spray five minutes ago. It’s that fast, ”the person promised. “Everyone, everyone, whose oxygen level drops, gets this spray. You don’t have to walk around for an oxygen bottle. “When Garg looked up where the online inquiries were coming from, he saw that they spanned the whole country. “This is a sign of desperation,” Garg told me. “When there is no information, bad information finds a way.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Indians relied on information from the Department of Health and Family Welfare to find out where the virus was headed. But officials rarely gave reporters the opportunity to ask questions – or get meaningful answers. “The briefings were not designed to be useful,” recalls Anoo Bhuyan, a health reporter for IndiaSpend, a data journalism nonprofit. “It was theater. It was frustrating. “Officials presented PowerPoint slides of selfish government talks and tried to attribute the outbreak to a gathering of Muslims in Delhi.” There was denialism and resistance to sharing information and being transparent, “Bhuyan said.

As the virus spread, the prime minister of the state where the Kumbh Mela was held said, “Maa Ganga’s blessing is on the flux. So there shouldn’t be a corona. “A lawmaker in another state claimed that the cleansing properties of cow urine and dung would fight the virus. The prime minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, said a good spirit and yoga are effective preventive measures. Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan attended the product launch of the “first evidence-based medicine for COVID-19”, which the organizers of the event said had been approved by the World Health Organization. (WHO immediately denied the claim.) And in one of his monthly addresses to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi played images from a viral video in which a doctor suggested a nebulizer was a viable alternative to an oxygen machine. After an outcry from medical experts, the government removed the images from their coronavirus materials.

As the confusion widened, desperate patients began to take all kinds of drugs. “Indians self-prescribe steroids,” said Sakshi Pandit, a molecular biologist. Some doctors have also sold fake elixirs. “Doctors seem to prescribe everything under the sun,” said Pandit. “My father was given azithromycin just to be on the safe side. And don’t even get me started on plasma transfusions. People take cancer drugs. They’re running around taking antivirals and antibiotics. What if they are no longer effective? I do not know what happens. Nobody is held accountable. “

When COVID-19 overwhelmed other nations, India initially seemed to miss it, leading to theories about the superior immunity of its citizens, the secret benefits of its climate, and the effectiveness of its leaders. In January, with daily cases remaining low, Modi stated that India “saved mankind from a great catastrophe by effectively containing corona”. Soon after, election officials announced that elections to the State Assembly would take place in March and April, including eight rounds of elections in West Bengal – with an estimated population of one hundred million. (A judge later attacked the move, telling electoral commission officials that they “should be charged with murder”.) The state campaign continued. In April as second wave Modi held a rally for his supporters and told them, “Today I see people in all directions. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a crowd. You have shown such strength that I can see people everywhere I look. You did something wonderful. “

Within a few weeks, the coronavirus broke the country’s social safety net. It seems to have spread everywhere, to every family; The rich flew abroad, the rest of us crouched in fear. Each of the fourteen people I interviewed for this article knew someone who was infected. I asked a source when a certain acquaintance had died. He replied with a date and then corrected himself: “Wait, there was a different friend last Saturday. She died last week. “

Twitter became a stream of SOSs. One woman’s father needed plasma, someone needed oxygen, someone else needed medication, another needed an ambulance. Hospital administrators tweeted appeals for oxygen. On the morning of April 29, administrators at a children’s hospital in Delhi announced that there were less than twenty minutes of liquid oxygen in the facility. Help arrived. Three days later, officials from the same hospital tweeted that their supplies were almost exhausted. Twelve hours later, they announced that the hospital would no longer admit patients in need of oxygen, “due to an inconsistent supply of liquid oxygen”. Seven patients died on April 28 when there was no oxygen in hospitals in Uttar Pradesh. Three days later, twelve patients died when a hospital in New Delhi did too. Dr. Prashant Mishra, a senior administrator at a Lucknow hospital, told me that doctors ration oxygen. “Now everyone wants oxygen. I work in the capital of a state and here we managed these things, but there would have been a problem inside because no one was prepared for such a massive outbreak, ”he said. “We try to manage the maximum number of patients with the resources available.” He told me that he received an average of forty to fifty calls a night from COVID-19 patients or their families.

News of the experience of a Gujarati family quickly spread online, adding to fears of poor care and hidden COVID deaths. According to press reports, Rupal Thakkar, a 48-year-old mother of a toddler, became weak and began to worsen. Days earlier, her husband had tested positive for the corona virus. Her family started looking for hospital beds and found one in a private hospital. After she was admitted on April 16, hospital officials told her family that Thakkar’s oxygen levels had dropped and that the family should move her to a facility with more resources. A few hours later, a doctor called and said that her heart had stopped. (A hospital spokesman told a local news agency that Thakkar was “hospitalized within the time and properly treated by the medical team.”) The death certificate issued by the hospital listed “sudden cardiac death” as the cause. In a document issued by a crematorium, the cause of her death was named “attack”. After Indian newspapers began investigating Thakkar’s case, the hospital issued a new death certificate describing COVID-19 as a contributing cause.

Journalists across India have reported that COVID-19 deaths are under counting. Recently, so many mourners crowded the crematoria in Gujarat that the police threatened to beat them if they did not disperse. One reporter compared the Indian government’s reaction to that of Soviet officials during the Chernobyl disaster, calling it a “Soviet system where you hide one number and then cover up another number to hide the first. And then create a policy based on the fake number. “

With India’s death toll surpassing two hundred thousand and the daily number of official cases surpassing three hundred thousand, pressure on Modi grows. The judges have ordered the government to ensure that Delhi has the oxygen it needs. Longtime critics of Modi have urged the prime minister to step down, or at least answer growing questions about oxygen starvation, problematic immunization policies, and his role in promoting superspreader events. In response, the Prime Minister’s advisors regularly reassure citizens that he is dealing personally with the “oxygen situation”. The country’s foreign minister, according to local news report, urged Indian diplomats to counter a “one-sided narrative” spread by international media about the country’s management of the pandemic. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting hosted one Workshop to help officials “provide information regarding government efforts to address and combat the ongoing Covid pandemic”. Indians will have more information just not the kind they need.

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