On Friday morning, people of Tamil Nadu woke up to a video from Tiruppur district. Six youths riding triples on two bikes without masks and helmets were stopped by the police and questioned why they were outside during a lockdown. Unsatisfied with their answers the police lead them to an 'ambulance'.
The video then introduces a comic background music score, as a 'patient' who is depicted to be COVID-19 positive attempts to touch the youngsters. What follows is two minutes of the men scrambling to avoid physical contact with the 'patient' and attempting to escape the close quarters of the tempo.
The video, which was staged and executed by the Tiruppur police, has received mixed responses on social media.
"The video is completely staged - right from the violators to the patient in the ambulance. We are doing this to spread awareness. Coronavirus is a communicable disease and people are not taking it seriously. We are doing this to show potential violators what their breaking or rules could result in," says Disha Mittal, SP of Tiruppur.
While some have hailed it as 'innovative', doctors and experts in the field of health point out that it will only create more stigma around the coronavirus and increase fear in people's minds.
"A government instrument cannot encourage such videos, especially not the police department," says Dr. Ezhil Naganathan, MD General Medicine, Consultant Physician. "Who gave them authority to indulge in such mocking and take such comical or jovial tone regarding coronavirus? This video will only increase stigma against patients, even after they have recovered," points out the doctor.
He says that there is already panic associated with that disease and was evident from the violence seen in the past week against the family and friends of a doctor who died after contracting the virus.
"Tomorrow, even after a patient is discharged from the hospital, such videos will encourage the public to fear them," he says.
Experts point out that use of 'fear' messaging definitely works as a rude wake up call for communities, however the effects are short term and not sustainable.
Jayashree Balasubramanian, the Director of Communication at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, who had been part of the Tamil Nadu HIV project draws parallels between the messaging around both diseases.
"While spreading awareness about HIV too, there was the belief that fear will alert people and make them come forward to report infections. However what happened instead was an increase in suicide of HIV positive patients and their ostracisation in society. We spent years destigmatising and changing the message to remove the damages of fear messaging," she says.
With coronavirus patients running away from hospitals and refusing to report themselves, she fears that repercussions of such messaging has already made its mark.