Fake News About Coronavirus Results in Harassment of NHS Staff12 May 2020
Fake news about the coronavirus have been making rounds since the outbreak took hold in the United Kingdom in March. Such fake news has especially taken strong hold in the country’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) populations, since news that these groups are suffering from higher numbers of deaths due to COVID-19.
As a result, doctors, nurses and NHS staff, including those from BAME backgrounds, are saying that they are experiencing increasing levels of harassment, threats and fearmongering. Many doctors now feel that they are fighting against not only the coronavirus but the false information that has spread since the outbreak.
Messages from dubious sources have spread fear in the community
The news that people of BAME backgrounds are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus have hit communities like Bradford, which has a large BAME population, especially hard. The already-severe sense of fear and uncertainty among BAME people over the virus were bolstered by social media posts and WhatsApp messages claiming to be from the staff at the Bradford Royal Infirmary. These posts and messages accused the hospital of deliberately letting BAME patients die. At times, such messages also advocated the use of items of dubious medicinal quality, such as black seed oil. At no point were any of these messages linked to any actual and verified staff members.
These messages, which have been appearing since April, have shifted the mood in hospitals, with staff noticing that many patients are afraid of being admitted to hospital. Patients in the hospital were reportedly bombarded with messages that if the patient died, their family would not be informed and the body would be cremated. Facebook groups naming NHS staff and accusing them of leaving people to die have also cropped up.
“They say I have blood on my hands”
It did not take long for the growing paranoia in the community to turn to hostility aimed at the hospital staff, including those of BAME backgrounds themselves. Among those harassed was consultant anaesthetist, Fozia Hayat. According to Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary, Hayat first received messages after her husband confronted fake news about people being left to die. She soon started receiving video messages. She did not open them and simply called on people to be careful about spreading misinformation that could harm lives.
The harassment continued through Ramadan, with messages accusing her of receiving bonuses for putting COVID-19 on death certificates, doctors forcing patients to sign “Do Not Resuscitate” forms, and claiming that COVID-19 did not exist to begin with.
“Please stop selling out and being [someone who was kept in the dark and fed false information] and stand up for the truth. You’ll be held responsible in the court of Allah for the deaths of these people, for negligence in this life, and life is very short,” one message read.
For Hayat, receiving this message during Ramadan which is meant to be be about family and community was especially hard to take. “It’s fine to have an opinion. But don’t be cruel. And don’t accuse people of things. It’s Ramadan and it’s meant to be a time to be kind and generous to each other,” she said.
Hayat said that she reported the messages to the police but did not take the issue any further, even though the officials were sympathetic. Instead, she has contacted Zulfi Karim, head of the Bradford Council of Mosques, who is going to have Hayat speak about the issue on Radio Ramadan, reassuring people that the sick will be looked after regardless of creed and colour.
In conjunction, social media pages of hospitals in Bradford have been putting up messages and news about patients receiving treatment and recovering in an attempt to counter these falsities.
Ultimately, Hayat feels that confronting such fake news is key to keep people coming to the hospital for treatment and getting the outbreak under control.