The coronavirus infection has spread fast to new clusters and countries, including Bangladesh, in the past week. So has disinformation about the virus.
Online sources are busy spreading wild theories about the source of the virus, demoralising people and making them vulnerable to manipulation.
Numerous posts, particularly videos, have appeared on social media– mainly YouTube and Facebook – in the past few days. The videos have the supposed answers of the why and where and how with highly dubious claims.
These videos claim to explain the reasons behind the outbreak, why it is happening in certain countries and not others, its remedies etc.
Many of these videos are being presented with religious overtones by so called Islamic clerics in Bangladesh through waz mahfils.
Having a large base of followers – both online and offline, numerous YouTube channels upload videos of these speeches and followers share them on Facebook. Spreading of such disinformation, especially at this critical time, violates the Digital Security Act.
On March 4, a video by one Mufti Kazi Ibrahim was posted on a YouTube channel named Mahfil TV, in which the cleric claimed to have a remedy for the coronavirus infection in the form of an equation found in a dream by a person named Mamun Maruf who lived in Italy.
According to Ibrahim, the Italy-resident Maruf "interviewed" the coronavirus in his dream. The virus told Mamun, "Allah sent the coronavirus soldiers to Earth to attack the Chinese for mistreating the Uighur Muslims," said Kazi Ibrahim.
The mufti said the dream seemed to be real to him.
In another video, he said the coronavirus had told Mamun that it would kill one-seventh of the world's population before disappearing.
The same story of how and why the coronavirus infection started was also told by another cleric named Maolana Lutfur Rahman in a waz, a video of which was uploaded to YouTube by Waz Vision BD channel.
In the dream, the coronavirus gave Mamun a formula for a remedy to survive its infection – an equation, 1.q7+6=13, which Mamun gave to Kazi Ibrahim.
In a very recent waz, which took place at the Durgapur Fazil (Degree) Madrasa on March 13, – the video of which was posted on YouTube channel TM Social Media and also shared on Facebook – the cleric made a bizarre and outlandish claim that scientists in the West were awestruck by his equation and that they were working day and night to decode it. His gullible followers unquestionably accept his baseless claims.
Then he explained that the equation was a formula for a concoction of six ingredients – fig (dumur), olive, black cumin, Ajwa date, honey and water from the Jamjam well. He, however, said he would not reveal the technique of making the concoction which requires mixing and boiling the ingredients at a certain temperature.
Often these speeches are laced with racism.
One cleric explained to his followers why the coronavirus spread to certain other countries: Italy because there live the atheists and homosexuals; Iran because it is the country that has "distorted" Islam the most; and so on.
In a video, Mufti Kazi Ibrahim said the coronavirus had told Mamun that they had no plan to attack Bangladesh because it is the only country in the world where the Qur'an and the Hadith are discussed the most. It, however, also said those who oppose Islam would not be spared.
Completely defying science, these clerics even go so far as to claim that reciting certain Surahs, then blowing on the palms and rubbing the palms on the face would protect one from being infected by the coronavirus. They say devoted Muslims will not be infected even after shaking hands if such rituals are performed.
A significant aspect of these speeches is the way of delivery. The speakers often flash a smile that has an air of sarcasm – almost ridicule – towards the worldwide panic the outbreak has caused. It challenges the scared faithful against any inclination towards the scientific explanation for the outbreak. The clerics use clever psychological tricks to soften up and influence the minds of the listeners.
In neighbouring India, too, some Hindu clerics and even some prominent politicians, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Assam's BJP MLA Suman Haripriya, have said yoga, cow dung and cow urine can cure coronavirus infection.
Many faithful Hindus across the world are at risk of falling for such quackery.
While many people share these videos on social media platforms to create awareness about such disinformation, many more share them out of blind faith in these clerics.
But beyond the digital world, those who attend these religious gatherings are the most affected by all this disinformation and thus vulnerable to acting in unscientific ways, which will increase the risk of the outbreak growing – even going out of control.
According to the Digital Security Act 2018, spreading of information intended to harm or deceive others is considered as "digital or electric fraud". It also falls under the category for false information intended to spread confusion.
When contacted, AFM Al-Kibria, deputy commissioner of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit's Cyber Division, said spreading such false information is a criminal offence under the Digital Security Act.
He said they had detained seven people for spreading false information regarding the coronavirus outbreak and released them after counselling and taking undertakings from them since they had not done this with any ill intention.
The deputy commissioner also said they had been monitoring online platforms for such activities and could take action against the offenders any time.
At a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) has already declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, when giant economies are being hit hard by it, these unsuspecting people do not have any clue how their lives would fare in case of even a moderate recession as an effect of the breakout.
Bangladesh is not adequately prepared to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, said Prof Muzaherul Huq, former WHO adviser for the Southeast Asia region, recently.
In case of the slightest spike in the number of infected people, the situation might just become overwhelming for everyone and the government.
Nurul Amin contributed to the report.