Media’s tendency to link every death to Covid-19 is spreading misinformation and stigma, say doctorsDoctors believe media portals need to exercise caution while publishing stories about the coronavirus as false reports can be very damaging to the social fabric.
When a 34-year-old woman from Chandragiri Municipality died in the course of the treatment in Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital on Monday afternoon, it didn’t take long for news portals to speculate that she had died as being a result of Covid-19.
While the woman was being treated for pneumonia, which is a symptom of Covid-19, her nasal and throat swabs were negative for the coronavirus, meaning she was not infected with the disease.
But soon after the woman died, the municipal chair from her ward posted a status on social media, stating that she had died of the coronavirus and urging her friends, relatives and neighbours to get tested at the Sukraraj Hospital.
“Some people from Chandragiri Municipality came to our hospital for the coronavirus test yesterday because of the news and the confirmation of the virus from their ward chair,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku, told the Post. “The ward chair has since removed his Facebook post after police warned him that he could be prosecuted for fear-mongering.”
According to the doctor, it is one thing to be cautious and another to spread panic during a pandemic.
Ever since fears over the Covid-19 pandemic began to reach Nepal, there has been an alarming tendency to relate every death and sickness to the coronavirus, said Pun. While many online news portals are quick to speculate and use click-bait headlines in order to gain anxious visitors during the lockdown, even responsible members, including some respected media outlets both print and online, can be seen spreading misinformation and stigmatising the sick and the deceased.
Fears of Covid-19 fears have driven many people in different parts of the country to visit their nearest hospitals and health facilities with complaints of flu-like symptoms. And news and posts on online portals and social media only exacerbate this fear. They have also become a vector of spreading stigma against a sick person and his family, say doctors.
When a patient at Patan Hospital in Lalitpur died on Monday morning, some online news sites and TV stations once again branded the deceased a suspected Covid-19 patient. Hospital officials said that the deceased patient was misrepresented, despite them clearly telling the media that the patient was not in the isolation ward being treated for coronavirus.
Similarly, on Sunday, many news media linked the death of a 34-year-old man, a migrant worker who had returned from the UAE, to a possible coronavirus infection. The man was being treated at a temporary hospital in Butwal. But the results of his swab tests at the National Public Health Laboratory were negative.
Unverified and unconfirmed news reports are not only causing fear and confusion among the public but are also promoting the ostracisation of one’s own friends and neighbours, Pun, the virologist at the Sukraraj hospital, told the Post.
“It is like a witch hunt, where people are banding together against a sick or dead person and their family. These news reports about ‘suspected coronavirus’ patients dying are disturbing social harmony,” Pun said.
A doctor at the Sukraraj Hospital said that a man who returned from the Middle East some three weeks ago had visited the hospital for a coronavirus test.
“The man said that he had been examined at a private clinic but his neighbors pressured him to undergo a test in our hospital,” the doctor said on condition of anonymity. “The man complained that he was forced to come to the hospital as villagers had prevented him and his family members from leaving their homes.”
There have been reports of people with the flu and common cold compelled to walk for hours to reach the hospital due to pressure from villagers. Some flu patients are compelled to use ambulances paying thousands of rupees to come to Sukraraj hospital.
Health experts say even patients suffering from fever do not necessarily mean that they might have a coronavirus infection, as fever is not a disease but only a sign of health problems. But even doctors are panicked and have stopped attending to fever patients.
“News about the death of corona suspects has caused more panic in the public,” said Dr Khem Karki, Health Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal’s advisor. “We will request the media not to publish such news and draw the attention of the Nepal Press Council.”
The season for the flu, malaria and dengue has started in Nepal, all of which cause fever and kill people every year.
So far, Nepal has reported five cases of Covid-19, four of them live cases and one recovered.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 27, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 210 countries and infected more than 5,684,795 people with 352,225 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 150,793 with 4,344 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.