Balakrishnayya took his life, having wrongly convinced himself that he had contracted coronavirus after reading several fake messages.

Screenshot: ABN Telugu
Health Coronavirus Saturday, February 15, 2020 - 09:36

On Tuesday, the death of 54-year-old Balakrishnayya from Thottambedu village in Andhra Pradesh sent shockwaves through the state. The middle-aged man wrongly believed that he had contracted the novel coronavirus disease or COVID-19, thinking he would spread it to others. He had allegedly read several messages and bulletins about the rapidly spreading virus and ultimately took his own life.

Balakrishnayya’s death highlights the tragic consequences of sharing unverified forward messages and other articles with false information.

Fake messages turn rampant

In one instance, several WhatsApp groups began circulating the message saying that coronavirus had been detected in chickens in Bengaluru and that one must avoid eating chicken to stop from contracting the disease. TNM was able to reach out to several experts, including Dr G Devegowda, president of the Institution of Veterinarians of Poultry Industry, who was able to debunk these claims and prove that the message was false.

“From a scientific and medical point of view, whether it is in India or elsewhere, the virus doesn’t spread from chicken. Please do not forward or share such messages,” Dr Devegowda had said.

Elsewhere, in Kerala, where three individuals had been confirmed to be positive for covid-19, fear-mongering messages claimed that drinking alcohol and eating non-vegetarian food could prevent people from contracting the disease. This and other messages have been spreading, despite state Health Minister KK Shailaja’s strict reminder that action would be taken against those who spread fake news.

In another incident, a doctor working at a government-run Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad tried to self immolate after he was suspended on the grounds of allegedly spreading fake news about the virus. The doctor, however, has claimed that there has been a lot of corruption and “treatment-related discrepancies” at the hospital and that he has been targeted by the administration for speaking out against it.

While some have taken to social media platforms to raise awareness about the outbreak, several others are using it to further their own causes.

One YouTube channel based out of Hyderabad focuses on various conspiracy theories which have risen from the recent outbreak.

Earlier, on February 9, a couple from Hungary was arrested for running a coronavirus fake news network. Though there have been no cases reported from Hungary so far, the two ran several fake news portals, websites, and Facebook pages which claimed that individuals from Budapest had succumbed to the infection. According to local police, the duo’s motives were to raise traffic to the pages to increase revenue from advertisements.

Verifying messages

“The first thing is to check with local government bodies about what safety campaigns are going on. Health officials in all districts are frequently being given updates and are conducting awareness campaigns for the benefit of the public. If you listen to the information that is being given during these awareness programs, it will help you have a better idea of what measures to take to keep yourself healthy,” states Dr Chennaya, Chittoor District Medical and Health Officer (DMHO).

By tuning into what your local health officials are saying, you will have a better understanding of the disease and how it affects those in your locality.

However, false messages and forwards are everywhere. What should you do if you receive a message that is of concern?

“The government has set up helpline numbers for this reason. If you have any doubts at all, please call and get them clarified. That is the only way to be sure that there is no risk,” adds the doctor.

Additionally reporting the spread of such messages to authorities can also aid in reducing fear.

As of Thursday, over 60,000 individuals around the world in over 28 countries have tested positive for Covid-19, with over 1,300 deaths reported. Most of the cases have been reported from China.

Three cases were confirmed in India in the state of Kerala. One of these individuals was discharged earlier on Thursday and placed under home quarantine after test results returned negative for the virus following treatment. The other two are also said to be stable and improving.

(With inputs from Balakrishna Ganeshan and Jahnavi Reddy)