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Some drink purifiers, others deny the threat: how people die because of fakes about coronavirus

The crisis is fertile ground for the spread of misinformation. And the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. with the BBC found a connection between erroneous information about coronavirus and attacks, arsons, and deaths. However, indirect harm from rumors, conspiracy theories and false medical information can be much greater, experts say.

Photo: Shutterstock

“We thought the coronavirus was a tool the government was using to divert our attention,” says Brian Lee Hitchens of Florida. - Or is it somehow related to 5G. Therefore, they ignored the quarantine and did not ask for help in time ”.

Brian, 46, speaks on the phone while lying in a hospital bed. His wife is in the next room. She is in critical condition, connected to a ventilator.

“The doctors are trying to save her lungs,” Brian says, his voice trembling with excitement. - She has pneumonia. And the body refuses to fight. "

After reading conspiracy theories on the Internet, the couple believed that no virus existed - all this is fiction. And if there is, then it is no worse than the usual flu. And in early May, they themselves became victims of COVID-19.

“Now I understand that this is definitely not a fake,” Brian says breathlessly. - There is a virus. He's out there and he's spreading. "

The danger of misinformation

The Air Force team is tracking the number of victims of misinformation about the coronavirus and has already checked dozens of stories, talked with the victims and health officials.

The effect of fakes about COVID-19 swept the whole world and resulted in a series of terrible events: from mass poisoning in Iran to clashes in India.

In the UK, for example, they began to set fire to 5G mobile towers after the conspiracy theory about the connection between 5G and the COVID-19 flash appeared on the Web.

A resident of Arizona died after trying to treat coronavirus aquarium cleaner.

Doom Purifier

At the end of March, Wanda and Harry Lenius heard that hydroxychloroquine should be used “to prevent coronavirus”. They noticed that a similar substance was indicated on the label of an old bottle lying in their home in Phoenix.

However, the effectiveness of this drug in the fight against COVID-19 has not been proven.

And recently, the World Health Organization has even stopped the clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine as a potential drug against COVID-19. A recent study showed that its use is not only ineffective, but can also increase the likelihood of a patient dying.

Rumors about the effectiveness of this drug appeared in late January in China. Chinese media outlets, including state ones, published on Twitter old studies of the antiviral effect of hydroxychloroquine. After that, the French doctor announced the encouraging results of the use of hydroxychloroquine.

And although later the results of the study were called into question, interest in the drug increased.

With varying degrees of skepticism, he was recalled by various media and influential people, in particular Tesla Musk CEO and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaru.

On the subject: Weapons and escape from the laboratory: the most popular coronavirus conspiracy theories

President Trump has also often talked about the potential of hydroxychloroquine, and at the next briefing in the White House even said: “What have you got to lose? Use it. ” In mid-May he went even further, saying that he adheres to his advice.

According to the monitoring platform CrowdTangle, each such comment caused a wave of discussions in social networks.

An overdose of hydroxychloroquine is rare, but pandemic anxiety pushed people to desperate steps.

And the result was not long in coming.

In Nigeria, several people were poisoned with a drug that praised Trump. This led authorities to caution people against the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

In early March, a 43-year-old Vietnamese man was taken to a clinic in Hanoi with an overdose of hydroxychloroquine. He was red as a crayfish, shivering and could not look in front of him. The director of the clinic, Dr. Nguyen, said that the man was just lucky - if it were not for the quick response of the doctors, everything would have ended fatally.

Harry Lenius was less fortunate. The cleanser that he and his wife swallowed contained another chemical and was poisonous.

After a few minutes, both felt dizzy and fever. And a little later they started vomiting and it became difficult to breathe. Harry died, and Wanda was taken to a hospital in serious condition.

Later, the woman explained why she and her husband drank the cleaning mixture. Donald Trump spoke about the benefits of hydroxychloroquine during a press conference at the White House.

Alcohol poisoning

In Iran, hundreds of people died from alcohol poisoning amid rumors of its therapeutic effects.

At the end of April, the total number of victims reached 796. Kambiz Soltaninejad of the Iranian Institute of Forensic Medicine said that this is the result of "fakes on social networks" that talked about the healing effect of alcohol in the treatment of COVID-19.

According to Islamic law, alcohol is prohibited in Iran. But locals secretly make moonshine, which may contain methyl alcohol and cause serious health problems.

The Air Force found out that a 5-year-old boy went blind after his parents gave him artificially vodka for medicinal purposes.

"My friend ate soap"

US President Donald Trump, who occasionally voices assumptions not confirmed by science, said the virus is losing power from sunlight. He suggested the use of ultraviolet and disinfectants to combat COVID-19.

“I can see that the disinfectant kills (the virus) in a minute ... Can we do something similar by injection or as a purge (of the body)?” - asked the American president during a briefing at the White House.

He later said it was ironic. However, some Americans took the president's words quite seriously. And the "hot line" of poison control centers began to receive calls asking for help.

A Kansas toxicologist said that after a briefing by the president, one person swallowed a disinfectant soap.

Duncan Maru of Elmhurst Hospital in New York said his colleagues had to rescue people after being “treated” with disinfectants.

“The patients were in serious condition. Such poisoning can have long-term health consequences. For example, cause cancer and gastrointestinal bleeding, ”he explained.

On the subject: Chipping instead of vaccination: Bill Gates commented on conspiracy theories about him and coronavirus

Arson, assault, and conspiracy

Favorable soil for the popularization of misinformation has become social networks. Fake assumptions spread at the speed of light and often attract more attention than true information.

For example, in the UK, more than 70 5G mobile communication towers were destroyed after the conspiracy theory about the connection between 5G and the COVID-19 flash appeared on the Web.

In April, Dylan Farrell, an engineer at Openreach, nearly fell victim to a 5G network attack.

The work day was almost over, and Dylan wanted to sit in a cafe to have tea. Suddenly he heard screams. At first, the man thought that this did not apply to him, but quickly realized that he was mistaken.

“You have no conscience,” the angry stranger yelled through the passenger window of Dylan's car. “5G is killing us all!”

“I have no doubt that he would have tried to get in and attack me if I had not immediately locked the car door,” says Dylan. - It was scary".

He quickly left.

“The theory of the likely health risks of 5G has been around for several years,” explains Claire Milne of Full Fact, a UK fact-checking charity. "And the coronavirus pandemic has breathed a second life into it."

On the subject: 5G and coronavirus: a new conspiracy theory causes panic and looting

Racial tension and collisions

In March, WHO Director-General Tedros Adanom Ghebreyesus warned that the pandemic would activate a “dangerous enemy”.

He had in mind racial intolerance against people in Asia and China, but the virus exacerbated tension in several other countries.

In April, several attacks on Muslims took place in India. They were beaten after rumors appeared that Muslims were spreading the coronavirus.

At the same time, a clash between Muslims and Hindus occurred in Sisai, a small village in eastern India. He was provoked by an attack on a Muslim boy, which was also associated with rumors that Muslims were distributing COVID-19.

As a result, one person was killed and one more seriously injured.

Affected fakes and ethnic communities. In Bradford, England, it was rumored that non-white patients were left to die.

And in Indauri, a city in central western India, doctors stoned potential infected people. In addition, WhatsApp distributed false videos stating that doctors allegedly took away healthy Muslims and gave them injections containing the virus.

As a result of the attack in early April, two doctors were seriously injured.

Severely ill due to fakes

Misinformation on the Internet can have direct consequences, which is why social platforms such as Facebook have said they will delete coronavirus messages that pose an immediate threat.

However, the consequences may be indirect and appear later.

“I hope my wife gets well,” says Brian Lee Hitchens, a Florida patient who has been the victim of coronavirus conspiracy theories. "But if I lose her, she will go to a better place."

Brian and his wife did not have a firm position on the coronavirus, they hesitated between two theories - this is a fiction related to 5G, or really a disease, but not as terrible as the authorities say. Therefore, they continued to live as usual, ignoring official warnings. Brian is a taxi driver, he did not stop working during quarantine. I went to the store, took medicine for my wife, who suffers from asthma and apnea. And even her poor health did not compel him to maintain social distance or wear a mask.

However, the virus quickly brought Brian back to reality. He returned to social media - this time to warn people about disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Experts say that such messages can be more useful in the fight against fakes than news articles and fact-finding investigations.

The cost of disinformation is a person's life

Brian's case may be extraordinary, but the sheer volume of information circulating on the Internet can mislead anyone. WHO calls this “infodemic”.

Perhaps not everyone takes fake medicine. But many refuse to believe in the reality of the virus, thereby reducing their chances of survival.

Recently, two men in their forties were brought to the emergency hospital in New York. Both are in serious condition. They were roommates and usually worked late.

A few hours later, one of them died in the arms of a doctor, Rajiv Fernando. The second was connected to a ventilator.

Dr. Fernando asked the men why they had not gone to the hospital earlier. They explained that they had read somewhere on the Internet that the virus was not very serious.

"They were treated at home," says Dr. Fernando, "because they thought it was something like the usual flu."

Men were at risk, but Dr. Fernando believes that if they did not self-medicate and promptly consulted doctors, their chances of recovery would be much higher.

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, says that he and his colleagues have seen patients who are “treated” on the Internet - making their own diagnoses, prescribing medicines for themselves. Some of them refer to President Trump's claims about the “healing power” of disinfectants.

On the subject: Bleach against coronavirus: in the USA sharply increased cases of poisoning with household chemicals

Dr. Maru, of Elmhurst Hospital in New York, says the number of people potentially delaying treatment is "astounding."

Several of his neighbors became infected and died because they believed social distancing was ineffective or that the coronavirus was fiction.

Instead of treating people, they and their colleagues are forced to spend time exposing misinformation, the doctor complains.

However, only patients cannot be blamed, Dr. Maru admits.

“Disinformation is a systemic problem,” he is convinced. "Blaming someone for being" treated "with bleach or for" dying quietly "at home is like blaming a pedestrian who gets hit by a drunk driver's car."

In response to the wave of misinformation, social networks have developed new rules.

“We do not allow the spread of malicious misinformation and have deleted hundreds of thousands of reports of fake drugs, as well as claims that the coronavirus does not exist, that it is caused by 5G, or that social distancing is ineffective,” Facebook said in a statement.

The company said it posted warning marks on approximately 90 million units of content.

YouTube video service has published a list of prohibited topics that can not be discussed in the video about COVID-19. In particular, this is an advertisement for drugs that supposedly can treat a coronavirus, and the statement that the virus does not exist or is associated with 5G.

What's next

While the world's best laboratories are working on a vaccine against coronavirus infection, opponents of vaccination and supporters of the conspiracy theory are also on the alert. They have become active in social networks - they create communities, spread disinformation, try to influence people's opinions.

This poses a potential health hazard, although it does not directly affect it.

Some of the doctors the Air Force’s office spoke with are most worried that disinformation may completely compromise the development of a coronavirus vaccine, which could be an important achievement for humankind.

The future is scary, doctors say. What they are observing right now does not add optimism.

“We are losing so many lives. People come too late, ”regrets Dr. Fernando from New York. “And we have to watch them die before our eyes.”

He had just finished his night shift and was talking to reporters on Skype while a protective mask was hanging from his ear.

Brian from Florida, a victim of COVID-19, turned on social networks to those who still think that the coronavirus does not exist:

“Just a few days ago, I believed in conspiracy theories myself. Don't be such a fool as I am, and you won't be affected by what happened to me and my wife. "

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