Wild rumors about the coronavirus are fueling opposition to testing in the northern Indian state of Punjab, reports BBC Punjabi’s Arvind Chhabra.
“Human organs have been smuggled,” Sonia Kaur, who lives in a village in Sangrur district in Punjab, told the BBC. “Not just the villagers, but the whole world is afraid of it. Social media is full of such news. “
Ms Kaur says she has heard of organs from people being harvested under the guise of diagnosing and treating coronavirus. It echoes the fears of countless other people in rural Punjab who are skeptical of the virus.
Rumors quickly spread in Punjab that the virus is a hoax, that people who do not have Covid-19 are taken to health centers, where they are killed for their organs, and that bodies are exchanged to dispel the suspicion.
A mix of fear, anxiety and easy access to social media, especially WhatsApp, has accelerated the spread of these baseless rumors in the form of doctored messages and videos.
This has led to protests and even attacks on health workers. Ms. Kaur’s village was one of many villages in Sangrur that did not allow health workers to take samples for testing – crowds threw them with stones, shouting “Go back, we don’t want to be tested.” Until they leave.
The government is already circulating videos aimed at allaying fears and dispelling disinformation, and has also announced an awareness campaign specifically targeting the latest wave of rumors.
“All of these rumors are unfounded,” Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu told the BBC. “No one can even touch the person who died from Covid. The corpse is wrapped and taken directly to the crematorium. The question of organ harvesting does not arise. “
While disinformation about Covid-19 is not unique to Punjab, opposition to testing has been much stronger and widespread here. And it thwarts the state government’s efforts to control the spread of the virus.
The state has so far reported 65,583 cases and 1,923 deaths. And it has seen a steady increase in its numbers in recent weeks. Officials said one of the reasons for the increase in deaths was the delay in testing because people showed up too late to hospitals for treatment.
Sucha Singh, 60, lost his wife Kulwant Kaur to Covid-19. But he still believes the coronavirus is a conspiracy.
“This is all absurd. There is nothing like corona. If there were, my wife’s mother, who is 80, would not be alive.
He says fearing that she would be taken away from the family, he did not take his wife to the hospital to be treated for her diabetes.
“But they never treated her for diabetes and kept crying corona, corona,” he adds.
Mr Singh insists that something more sinister is happening.
“We have heard that doctors and governments are being paid for showing more victims of Covid-19. We have also heard that people are dragged out of their homes and then killed. “
The changing information about Covid-19, and the varying impact it has had across ages and regions, appears to fuel disinformation.
“Before, old people died. Now even the young are dying. How is it that suddenly even young people are infected? Asks Satpal Singh Dhillon, a village chief whose council has not authorized testing for Covid-19.
“We usually see it was an old man who died but their family has the body of a young woman. So how can people trust anyone in such a scenario? “
It is impossible to trace the origin of these rumors, but some – like the one about the exchange of bodies – could have been triggered by an error.
In July, two brothers whose father died of Covid-19 claimed he was still alive and received the body of a woman. This led to a masterful investigation, and officials later admitted that there was confusion, but said the man, too, had died and was cremated by the woman’s family.
Nonetheless, the rumors took hold.
“We are not opposed to testing, but we are definitely opposed to people being forcibly taken away by health workers,” said Sukhdev Singh Kokri from Moga district. “People are normal when they are taken away, but they come back dead with their organs removed. “
He alleges the government is exaggerating Covid-19 numbers to control people and end the protest.
Officials say it is not clear why anyone would start such rumors, or why it is happening at this point in Punjab.
But the state’s deputy health director, Arvinder Gill, said there had been similar protests sparked off by rumors during polio and rubella vaccination campaigns.
“I remember during our polio vaccination campaign, people resisted our teams saying that these drops would make their children helpless. Again, during the rubella campaign, people opposed it saying it caused a fever and could prove fatal.
Dr Gill adds that resistance could turn out to be disastrous as people won’t know if they are infected.
“They will be infected and will move. Their own condition will deteriorate. Later, when they come to the hospital, the medical establishment may not be able to help them. “