Updated: August 14, 2020 2:42:56 pm
Doctors in Parbhani are facing a new challenge as they fight Covid-19 cases in the district – they also have to battle an onslaught of rumours and allegations circulating on social media, linked to the viral infection. According to local doctors, the rumours are keeping patients away from clinics and hospitals, making the transmission of the virus difficult to detect and control.
Doctors and local residents say that many patients with Covid-linked symptoms are preferring to stay at home and suffer, rather than seek medical attention, due to the fear of doctors “misdiagnosing the illness”. Viral social media messages, which claim that doctors are diagnosing Covid-19 cases to “to claim subsidy funds”, or “kill patients and steal their organs”, have directly contributed to this fear, they said. The fear is so strong that those suffering from other, unrelated illnesses are reportedly also avoiding consulting a doctor.
As the problem takes on serious proportions, the district administration is yet to come up with a concerted effort to tackle the issue. It has also claimed that there is no fear of the infection due to false social media posts.
In the first months of the pandemic, only a few Covid-19 cases were detected in Parbhani (nearly 100 cases by end of June), and the prevailing feeling among local residents was that the stringent measures taken by the government were “much trouble for nothing”. But with the number of cases rising steeply — the district has reported 1,200 cases by August 12 — the narrative has shifted to “deliberate misdiagnosis” of cases. Social media posts with blatantly false information are fuelling such feelings further, said local residents.
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“It’s true that residents who have Covid-19 related symptoms are not approaching the health system. They come to us only after the ailment becomes severe and too much to suffer,” said Dr Ravi Shinde of Varad Hospital, the most popular private hospital in Pathri town, 45 km from Parbhani.
“People here believe all kinds of conspiracy theories against the health system. On an average, about two potential Covid-19 patients come to me per day. I suspect that there are about 250-300 symptomatic patients in the town, but they are not approaching us. This is a potentially dangerous situation,” said Dr Shinde.
The false social media messages circulating in the town make a range of outrageous claims: they term the pandemic as a hoax created by doctors and the government for nefarious purposes, claim that hospitals are interested in increasing the count of Covid-19 patients as they get Rs 1.50 lakh cash subsidy per patient from the government, urge local residents not to visit doctors as Covid-19 is “just a flu”, and list medicines for “home treatment” of the infection.
“Is coronavirus real? I don’t believe it is,” said Bajirao Jadhav, an auto-rickshaw driver who ferries dozens of passengers between Pathri and Rampuri every day. “I have a cough for two to three days, but I am not going to a doctor because doctors are diagnosing each and everyone with corona”.
“The disease may be a reality in China or America, but it doesn’t exist here. We are tough people. Even those who were taken to the hospital as Covid patients were hale and hearty. They didn’t have so much as a fever or a cough,” said Akbar Khan, another resident of Pathri.
According to Dr Shinde, many of his patients were afraid to go for a Covid-19 test for fear of their relatives being taken away for quarantine, or, in case of a Covid-related death in the family, the body not being returned to them for last rites.
Dr Syed Jubair, who has a clinic in Parbhani town, said the newness of the disease, the treatment protocol for patients and potential patients, and “systematic targeting of a certain community in the initial period of the pandemic”, has created fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“Every day, I receive dozens of calls of patients who say they have Covid-19 symptoms but are opting for self-treatment. They are too afraid to go to a hospital because of the fear created by social media posts, as they think they will be injected with poison or their organs will be stolen. Most of the patients approach doctors only after their oxygen saturation levels drop considerably – say below 70 per cent. This is pushing up the mortality rate,” said Dr Jubair who, with other doctors, is now operating a tele-counselling helpline for Parbhani residents.
Of the 1,255 residents of Parbhani district who were diagnosed with Covid-19 by August 12, 63 have lost their lives. The mortality rate in Parbhani, 5 per cent, is much higher than the national rate of 2 per cent and state rate of 3.5 per cent.
District Collector Deepak Muglikar, however, rubbished “observations” about local residents being too afraid to reach out to health authorities.
“There’s absolutely no truth in these claims. They are not hiding it… they are coming straight away to doctors. Apart from this, we are surveying various groups and localities and haven’t found such an indication. To reduce the fear, if any, of forced quarantine, we have adopted a policy of allowing home isolation of asymptomatic patients. We will publicise this,” said Muglikar.
In order to detect unreported infection cases the district administration has launched an ‘antigen testing’ programme under which hundreds of traders, shopkeepers and other residents are being checked randomly, said the district collector.
“We have checked 9,500 persons in the last 15 days,” he said.
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