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Monday, 20 May 2024
Fake news compounds Coronavirus crisis
Ian Black

In a week that the number of those infected with coronavirus passed the one million mark, “fake news” is becoming a problem of global dimensions. Outright lies and unsubstantiated rumours about Covid-19 are stoking fears and threatening public health. Coronavirus crisis

And when New York has become the epicentre of the pandemic in the US, it is worth reflecting that just weeks ago President Donald Trump complained that American media were exaggerating the threat. “USA in great shape,” he tweeted in late February, part of his strategy of playing down the risks, apparently more concerned about the economic impact in an election year than people’s lives. "I think that's a problem that's going to go away," he insisted.

On 24 March the president declared that he wanted to see “packed” churches at Easter, and that that would be a “beautiful time” to return to normal. Days later he decided otherwise, warning (only partially correctly) that Americans faced a “horrific two weeks.”

Reality, according to most objective predictions, is far worse – in the US itself and beyond. This crisis is simultaneously a worldwide health one and a devastating economic one, though developed countries are far better prepared to deal with its multiple challenges than underdeveloped ones.

Just contrast Britain’s centralised National Health Service with what is available in India; or the respect for “social distancing” in the US and Iran. Resources matter: The Central African Republic has three ventilators for almost five million people. Gaza has 40 for two million. Syria’s nine-year war has left the country woefully ill-prepared to tackle coronavirus. Coronavirus crisis

Significant differences exist between wealthy countries: Italy, with the highest levels of deaths in the world, is performing badly compared to Germany or South Korea. But in democratic systems, governments struggling to cope are held accountable by parliaments, robust civil societies and a free and independent media.

Misinformation is especially widespread in southeast Asia and Africa. False claims and conspiracy theories have spread rapidly on social media, touting “cures” like drinking bleach or rubbing mustard and garlic into your skin. Damaging lies being spread include so-called “miracle cures” for the virus, such as drinking chlorine dioxide, or urine, eating garlic, gargling saltwater or spreading cow dung and mustard paste.

In Myanmar, news websites have reported false claims supposedly made by health officials, advising people to sleep next to chopped onions claiming this will “absorb the virus” or to drink ginger juice. It is also falsely claimed you cannot catch coronavirus if you have a mosquito bite.

In Tanzania, people have received WhatsApp messages claiming to be from the health ministry and telling them drinking warm water every few minutes will prevent infection. The same message has also appeared in French throughout West Africa, claiming to be from the Canadian Health Ministry.

“Messages like this are undermining the efforts of real health officials to contain the virus, damaging trust in official advice and confusing people,” warned the UK Department for International Development. Coronavirus crisis

Another serious risk is that “fake news” will promote violence. Rumours that the virus was created or spread deliberately have led to attacks on Chinese nationals across southeast Asia as well as in the UK. A video claiming to show Chinese officials shooting coronavirus victims and alleging tens of thousands were executed went viral on social media sites worldwide. The video was in fact edited from four unrelated clips, including one of Chinese police shooting a rabid dog.

Anti-Chinese sentiment appears to be growing globally. Trump has not helped there either, referring repeatedly to a “Chinese” virus. Other Americans have suggested that Covid-19 is cover for an attempt by Beijing to destroy the US economy. But it works both ways: last month a Chinese government spokesman claimed, without citing any evidence, that “it might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan during the 2019 Military World Games.”

And China’s success in dealing with the crisis may be misleading: “Good public-health practice doesn’t just require control and surveillance,” as one expert pointed out. “It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics.”

Iranian media portrays the virus as a conspiracy orchestrated by the US and Israel. Egypt expelled a British newspaper correspondent for reporting that the authorities were ignoring evidence that Covid-19 was far more widespread than was being acknowledged, even as it introduced stringent methods to combat it. Pakistan failed to ban mass religious events.

Nor is Europe immune: Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has dismissed coronavirus – officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization – as a “psychosis,” warning that panic will hurt people more than the virus. He recommended vodka, saunas and exercise involving tractors as antidotes to the disease.

Trump attracted yet more outrage by ignoring his own government’s advice to citizens – and declaring he would not wear a face mask in the Oval Office. Justified criticism is not fake news: functioning and accountable democracies – whatever their capabilities and imperfections - still seem better equipped than authoritarian political systems to deal with this extraordinary global threat. Coronavirus crisis

Ian is a former Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor for the Guardian newspaper. In recent years he has reported and commented extensively on the Arab uprisings and their aftermath in Syria, Libya and Egypt, along with frequent visits to Iran, the Gulf and across the MENA region. His latest book, a new history of the Palestine–Israel conflict, was published in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. He has an MA in history and social and political science from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in government from LSE. Ian has written for the Economist, the Washington Post and many other publications, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio on Middle Eastern and international affairs. He wrote the introduction to The Arab Spring: Revolution, Rebellion and a New World Order (Guardian Books, 2012); Israel's Secret Wars (Grove Press, 1991), Zionism and the Arabs, 1936–1939 (Taylor & Francis, 1986, 2015); and contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Macmillan Library Reference, 2004). His most recent book is Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (Allen Lane, 2017). levant