One of the teams addresses many common myths — like the effectiveness of clapping and lighting lamps, homeopathy — and debunks them with scientific explanations.

Hoax busting apps strategies 540 Indian scientists find solutions to COVID-19Image for representation/
Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, April 23, 2020 - 15:17

A young girl is excited that her father is cooking chicken curry for dinner. Over the course of preparing the chicken, the family discusses many things they started doing recently to prevent COVID-19. They talk about how to clean vegetables, what precautions to take while cooking, how to store groceries, and even whether the chicken curry can be shared with a neighbour showing symptoms.

This story is from the series Daily life and COVID-19, a set of stories and guidelines from the ISRC (Indian Scientists' Response to COVID19). The stories offer scientific solutions to navigating daily life during the pandemic. They are written in a sensitive manner while addressing challenges like water scarcity and inadequate space inside homes for physical distancing in the Indian context.

This is just one of the many initiatives by ISRC, a voluntary group of scientists in India. The group is also working on busting fake news, creating mathematical models, data analysis, creating apps and designing communication material, in response to the pandemic.

R Ramanujam, professor at Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS), Chennai, and one of the founding members of ISRC, says that the group is an effort from scientists with several years of experience to play a part in tackling the crisis. “Medical researchers and pharmacologists can work on drugs and things like that, but what about other scientists? Most people are locked out of their institutions and labs. We all have been in science for around 20 years or more. We have analytical training. We cannot just sit quiet,” says Ramanujam. 

The group, which started coming together before the nationwide lockdown was announced, has now grown to have around 540 members from various branches of science, with nearly 400 of them affiliated with various educational institutions.

Members of the group with experience in science communication have also been busting false news and misinformation related to COVID-19. The ‘hoax busters’ address many common myths — like the ability of animals, mosquitoes and houseflies to carry the novel coronavirus, the effectiveness of clapping and lighting lamps in killing the virus, and the value of the solutions offered by astrology, homeopathy and yoga — and debunk them with scientific explanations.

The hoax busting team

The communication material — on hoax busting, safely navigating daily life, answers to common questions and various dos and don'ts — is available in nearly 14 different languages.

Aniket Sule, a science communicator associated with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai, is part of the team creating the hoax busting material and answers to FAQs (frequently asked questions). With the flood of misinformation going around making it impossible to address each one individually, the team groups the hoaxes into various themes.

“For example, there are many astrology related messages saying things are happening because of Rahu or Amavasya. Then, there are home remedies where people say use lemon or ginger or garlic (as a cure),” he says.

While the first round of hoax busting deals with nearly 17 themes, the second round is expected to come out soon.

Aniket says the hoax-busting material largely deals with the kind of misinformation being circulated through WhatsApp, among urban middle-class populations. He says that a lot of false news is also being circulated on TikTok. While the group has not explored other media yet, the thematic approach covers topics common to most platforms.   

Reeteka Sud, a neuroscientist at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences), Bengaluru, is part of the hoax busters' team, while also coordinating the group’s social media strategy. Reeteka notes that there are two sides to false information -- one that leads to harmful measures out of panic over the disease, and the other which misleads people into a sense of false security and makes them careless.

“While addressing myth-busting, both of these are important factors that we consider. A statement any of us hears, a WhatsApp forward, whatever it may be, if it satisfies either of these criteria - it is a hoax that we seek to address,” she says.

The material is shared through the group’s social media, WhatsApp, and in some cases through district-level authorities or NGOs. “For instance, there’s a lot of outreach happening in villages around IISER (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) Kolkata, where the Bengali material has been printed and posters have been put up at the panchayat level. In Kerala, the Breakthrough Science Society is circulating the material through their networks,” Aniket says.

Stressing that everyone is susceptible to myths seeking to exploit peoples’ emotions, Reeteka says the group takes a scientific evidence-based approach while answering the myths.  “In doing so, we hope it inspires people to ask questions when they see such messages in their news feeds,” Ramanujam says.

Strategies, making ventilators and more

Apart from the science communication work, which is accessible to the public, the group is involved in various other projects. Some members are engaged in developing mathematical models that can predict the spread of the COVID-19 in various parts of India, in order to come up with mitigation strategies.

There are also groups working on creating hardware like masks and ventilators, as wells as apps for contact tracing, and accessing healthcare.

The group also includes a few social scientists. “When we are discussing an app, we have people who pitch in about privacy issues involved in it. Similarly, if there is no running water, how will people wash hands,” says Ramanujam.

Science and data by government

The group has also issued a statement on the blame directed towards the Tablighi Jamaat for holding an event that turned out to be a ‘super-spreader’.

“The actual number of infected across the country is believed to be far larger than the number of cases that have been confirmed so far. The effects of the Delhi event on the growth rate of all-India numbers may thus be significantly less than the numbers put out by MoHFW,” the statement reads, and goes on to urge the government to increase testing and to share the data transparently with the public.

“Our purpose in releasing the statement on Tablighi Jamaat event was to point out where the science does not agree with what the public might be led to think,” Reeteka says. 

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