by Glenda Kwek, with Abhaya Srivastava
Hoaxes, doctored videos and far-fetched rumours are emerging as some of the biggest threats to India’s massive coronavirus vaccine drive, with misinformation blamed for sluggish initial take-ups.
There has long been deep distrust of government health programmes throughout the vast nation of 1.3 billion people, particularly among minority communities, making a strong foundation for the proliferation of vaccine “fake news”.
Indian authorities are aiming to inoculate 300 million people by July. But medics in New Delhi and elsewhere say signs following the weekend launch of the campaign have not been good.
“People are very scared. We can’t force anyone to take the vaccine, it is voluntary,” a doctor at a community health centre in neighbouring Haryana state, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP.
On the first day of the rollout in the capital, only 53 percent of people registered for the vaccine came forward, according to the city’s Health Minister Satyendar Jain.
National Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, a doctor, has repeatedly called for state and local authorities to refute “rumours and disinformation campaigns”.
To coincide with Saturday’s launch of the vaccination campaign, Vardhan changed his Twitter banner to “vaccines work: stay informed, stay safe”.
Prominent Bollywood celebrities, including megastars Amitabh Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, have also spoken out in support of the vaccine rollout on social media.
Like elsewhere around the world, India has endured a torrent of misinformation for the duration of the pandemic.
AFP’s fact check team has debunked a vast number of hoaxes circulating on social media over the past year.
Compounding the situation is the scientific backlash against one of the two vaccines being used in the campaign, indigenously developed “Covaxin”, which was approved before Phase III trials were completed.
“I read that someone died after being given the vaccine. Although it may be unrelated, it does instil fear still,” 54-year-old banker Sushma Ali told AFP.
The other vaccine is Covishield, a version of AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s shot made by India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.
Missteps and mistrust
Further highlighting the importance Indian officials are placing on fighting misinformation, the drugs controller general was forced to dismiss as “absolute rubbish” claims that inoculations could cause infertility — just hours after announcing that two vaccines were approved for use.
False claims about infertility have long haunted India’s immunisation efforts, including for polio and measles-rubella, according to leading virologist Gagandeep Kang from the Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory at the Christian Medical College in Tamil Nadu.
Disastrous government policies in the past also did not help.
In some communities where healthcare systems were already weak, the top-down implementation of polio vaccinations in the early 2000s triggered memories of forced sterilisations during emergency rule between 1975-77.
It sparked fears in some Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh state that the programme was a form of population control.
Similar fears spread in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in 2016-17 over the measles-rubella vaccine.
India’s last wild polio virus infection was in 2011 and the country was declared polio-free in 2014.
Experts said the long path to polio vaccination success took the involvement of local religious and community leaders to build trust.
Muslim communities have also felt the brunt of pandemic misinformation.
One example was the outrage against Islamic movement Tablighi Jamaat after its Delhi gathering was identified as a major virus hotspot last year.
This fuelled misinformation that stoked hostility towards the Muslim community, Observer Research Foundation think-tank’s governance and public policy expert, Niranjan Sahoo, told AFP.
AFP’s fact check team also debunked hundreds of social media posts that falsely targeted Muslims in regards to the pandemic in India, such as fake and dubious videos showing Muslims licking fruit for sale and violating lockdown rules.
The inflammatory rhetoric online had real-world consequences, with cases of violence and anger against Muslims.
One hospital said Muslims would not be admitted without a negative COVID-19 certificate.
The spread of misinformation in turn saw health workers attacked when they visited a Muslim neighbourhood in the central city of Indore, amid “social media claims that they were going to be injected with the coronavirus”, Sahoo said.
“We have a history of polarisation through misinformation and this is going to play out during this vaccination process,” Sahoo said.