It was very painful to hear the impact of Corona virus related fake news on the business of a hardworking poultry entrepreneur from Odisha.
A successful name in poultry sector in the eastern India had he set up a farm through his hard labour and dedication.
During March, 2020 the news about spread of COVID-19 came as rude shock, disbelief, disquiet and awe to all Indians.
Along with information and news also came flood of fake news, rumours, opinion spams with deceptive and malicious contents.
With mischievous intent some people started preparing, writing and designing the false information and spreading while many others went on passing those using internet based social media platforms, most often, out of innocence and curiosity even while thinking that their action would do good to others.
One such piece of misinformation was that COVID- 19 could be spread through consumption of eggs and poultry products.
The rumour mill ran high and generated a lot of fear.
The direct outcome was on the sale of poultry meat and eggs.
The hotels, restaurants remaining closed, postponement or cancellation of marriage and other social functions added further woes to the tale.
Even before Covid 19 was declared a pandemic, there was a rumour that poultry birds were carriers and as a result the sale rate came down to Rs.30/- from Rs.55.00 per Kg of live bird.
As the largest integrator providing service to more than 6000 farms, the loss incurred according to him was approximately Rs. 35 Crores in a month.
In March, the entrepreneur was placing 12 Lakh chicks per week for rearing.
As sale rate got further reduced to Rs 5/- per Kg of live bird abysmally on account of misinformation and other related developments, he was left with no option but to make forceful sacrifice of the chicks and growers in different age groups by way of dumping and burying.
He was forced to destroy hatching eggs and the chicks coming out from incubators on daily basis, resulting in additional loss.
As the raw material for feed processing was not available and the laying mother birds were kept either half fed or unfed for days, resulting in drastic reduction in laying eggs, the economic losses shot up.
As a responsible employer, he paid salary to all our employees, daily labourers including various over head charges for last 2 months.
The entreprenuer lost around Rs 130 Crores due to Covid 19 and is in a grave financial crisis now.
Most of his losses are due to drop in sales caused due to false information circulating in the market.
Not only this entrepreneur, but a large number of players in the poultry sector suffered due to fake,unverified news causing irreparable losses.
The dreams of some of them are likely to sour in the end.
Like the above example, we saw waves of misinformation and rumour flooding the people in the beginning.
Often Government had to issue clarifications and resorted to Police cases.
However, the impacts of such misinformation were quite visible resulting in increasing the risk of vulnerable people.
During a crisis any piece of information influences the thinking and behavoiur.
Instead of protecting the people, those things become genuine threats.
One can imagine the palpable fear in the community to hear that some infected vegetable sellers were licking the vegetables to spread the virus.
People went to the extent of circulating a fake order in the name of Supreme Court stating that the court had advised to restore 4G network in Kashmir within 24 hours.
Someone created panic among the pensioners by circulating news that Government had reduced 30% of the pension.
False news about reduction of retirement age was meant to affect the morale of hard working government employees during the crisis.
Many derogatory and discriminatory messages towards communities were created to cause confusion, panic and spread hatred amongst people.
People refused to join the last rites of their near and dear ones even when deaths were not due to COVID.
The returnees from abroad and other places faced social boycott.
The rumour mongers were active to suggest certain foolish remedies to the disease.
Their suggestions to avoid cold food, ice cream had no scientific basis and obviously the production and sale of such items dropped drastically.
Numerous videos showing that affected people in China were being shot dead, bodies lying strewn around on the street on social media platforms led to widespread fear amongst the common people.
The production and distribution of agricultural, poultry, fishery and dairy products plummeted affecting our farmers badly.
Unlike in the near past, availability of smart phones and internet in every nook and corner of the country aided the process.
The process of rumour and false information was going on parallel to the mainstream communication.
Instead of generating solidarity and confidence based on scientific facts to fight the disease such actions created fear.
Assessment of risk and vulnerabilities of different sections of communities, communication of risks to people are keys to saving lives of people in any kind of disaster.
Inaccurate information encourages risky behavior.
Communication of false assurances like the virus not being able to withstand heat, affecting only old people, usage of home remedy etc. are life threatening to say the least.
All the above processes went on despite the early and best efforts made by the government machineries.
Some praiseworthy steps taken were daily press briefings by the state as well as central governments, regular addresses by the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and several Ministers.
Interaction with PRI functionaries by the Heads of the Governments, continuous engagement on social media, promotion of audio- visual campaigns, use of loud speakers, posters, pamphlets, sending bulk SMSs were few of all possible ways, using which Government wanted to make the citizens aware about the pandemic disease.
COVID- 19 for the first time in the history of Disaster Management has highlighted the threat of a parallel universe of rumour and false information- rightly labeled as Infodemic, which is real and challenging.
Though fighting the menace is everyone’s responsibility, its early detection is key to handling it.
As propagation takes place through internet, the software engineers should devise ways to identify it from the web and social media.
The enforcement agencies should book the offenders strictly and drive fears so that such people do not resort to the tactics.
The rumour mongers tend to meet the appetite for information of public.
The Disaster Managers have to be imaginative to design the contents and start the campaigns very early using all possible ways.
We acknowledge that the spread information can be several times faster than the virus itself in the age of Digital Technology.
Public must perceive openness and transparency in the mainstream efforts to rely upon it 100 percent.
In our country, we have models of village based disaster management wherein the villagers actively participate in making plans and their execution.
The civil society does handholding in the process.
Hitherto, the community had managed flood, cyclone, drought etc through community participation successfully.
The village communities rely on authentic government sources of information seamlessly for any action.
COVID- 19 has brought new challenges to the disaster managersabout the infodemic which everyone witnessed.
Though the first phase of false rumour mongering is over now with the government channels solidly taking over, but it has left valuable lessons to be kept in mind for future action.
* The author works as the Principal Secretary, Energy Department, Government of Odisha.
He was in charge of Disaster Management Department for Odisha state previously and had received global appreciation for management of Very Severe Cyclonic Storm “FANI’ during May, 2019.
The views expressed are in his personal capacity.