Pandemics: Always accompanied by rumours
'Every rumour has its audience'; this statement has been correctly stated by social psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman. Historically the outbreak of pandemics has always been accompanied by the dissemination of rumours and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories tend to claim that a group is surreptitiously plotting to control and destroy an institution, a country or the entire world.
By rumour, Gordon Allport and Leo Postman meant (1947) 'a specific (topical) proposition for belief, passed along from person to person, usually by word of mouth, without secure standard of evidence being present'. Now days, rumors are flourished via the internet into social media.
According to Jamuna Prasad, a social psychologist who documented the spread in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Northern India, presented a theory of social and psychological process involved in rumour generation and transition. Here, he argued about five conditions of spreading rumours in case of typical situation; which are, (a) setting up an emotional disturbance (b) is of an unfamiliar type (c) containing many aspects unknown to the individuals affected (d) containing several unverifiable factors (e) is of group interest. If we consider these five conditions with rumours of Covid-19 virus then we can see that the rumors are creating emotional disturbances among people as the virus is noble and no cure has yet been invented. It's a matter of group of interests about the people of the whole world that is affected and many aspects are still untraceable of this virus. Therefore, all news regarding this virus has been taken seriously without verifying its authenticity.
In "A Psychology of Rumour",an article written by Psychologist Robert H. Knapp, has explained three types of rumors based on the emotion that drives it. First one is 'Pipe-dream Rumour' that expresses the wishes and hopes of those among whom they circulate. For example, Corona virus cannot sustain in high temperature hence, we the people of Bangladesh are safe. This is one rumor which the people want to be true. Second one is 'Bogie Rumour'that is essentially derived from fear and anxiety that make people more panic about a certain event and want to be untrue. Excellent piece of examples are; Rumi was arrested by RAB for spreading rumor regarding the corona virus in his Facebook page stated in Chittagong city, four students were infected.
Another rumor spread like a wildfire on 19th March 2020 in the form of an audio recording of 35 seconds in Facebook messenger stated around 18-19 people died in Chittagong Medical due to corona virus. However all these are untrue and people spread the news in social media with an apprehension of anxiety and fear and hope that the statement is not true. The last type of rumor is 'Wedge-driving Aggression Rumor'. As we have already seen people from different religions or culture, blaming one another for the spread corona virus.
Talking about motive behind spreading rumour in pandemic situations is more or less common in every event. At first, 'Exhibitionism', this is undoubtedly one of the prime motives where the delinquent person disseminating rumours by which he conveys the impression that he has access to information and knowledge not available to others YouTuber Dana Ashlie, for example, recently posted videos online to claimed that COVID-19 emerged because 5G mobile technology was rolled out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. Then another motive could be 'Bestowing a favor. In the case of many rumors, particularly panic rumors, the strong impulse to transmit them arises from the desire to inform others of impending menace or danger. 'Reassurance and emotional support' is another one where the rumor is stated primarily for the purpose of sharing one's own anxiety with another.
Surprisingly as stated before, outbreak of any pandemics has correlation with rumour which has been explained by Charles Rosenberg in his article 'What is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective'.
According to Rosenberg, any disease that spreads from primary infection to the entire country and eventually to other countries has three steps to spread. The first step is 'Progressive Revelation', slowly understanding the matter. This step indicates that, in every history of any pandemic, at first people tend to overlook the matter. When the Covid-19 first transmitted into China many people outside China ignored the issue by saying it will not spread as they are emotionally, socially and geographically distant from China. However, progressively it spreads by its own rule and people started understanding the matter. Distance reduced, psychological tension starts as events of disease spread.
The second step in spreading the infection is called 'Managing Randomness'. As the infection spreads to any country or continent it certainly creates immense pressure on the mental and social space of the entire population of that country or continent. Surprisingly, it has been seen that the response of many people to all pestilences was religious or adorable God-dependent. The population tries to shape the transmission of infectious germs according to their own beliefs and thus false assurances merge from various sites. For instance, some people believe in the diagnosis and response of using cow urine as a medicine to prevent Covid-19 infection. A person named MuftiKazi Md Ibrahim in Bangladesh had claimed by "declaring" that as Bangladesh is a majority Muslim practicing country therefore Corona will not attack here.
In this second type another factor is true for all epidemics in history is to blame on the people of different religions, on different eating habits, and even on different food items. Undoubtedly this has happened in the case of Covid-19 infection. Interestingly, when Corona virus transmitted into China people labeled it as a curse upon them as they had tortured Muslims there. Also, people all around the world criticized the food habit of the Chinese people. Some says it has come from bats while others opined in favor of snakes. Unfortunately, numerous poultry farms have been affected due to the fake news being spread on social media. In the 14th century, when the plague ravaged Europe, nobody knew how the illness had originated. Soon after, unfounded rumors surfaced that Jews caused the outbreak by poisoning wells in a bid to control the world. Jewish people were accused of being behind the plague and were subjected to deadly pogroms and forcefully displaced.
The last phase of blame imposes on the government of one country. As in case of Covid-19, China and US government blamed one another for invention and transmission of this disease. Similarly, in 1918 influenza pandemic, some people believed the pathogen had been developed by the German army to use as a weapon. Sadly, all these blames and accusations create social division.
Some immoral unethical businessman took the opportunity and spread false information in the market to earn money by making people more scared of the virus. Suffice of evidence can be given in our country where price of hand sanitizer and masks have increased rapidly by controlling their supply and creating a shortage of stocks in the market. Moreover, some people started buying their daily groceries in high price and as a consequence, the low income family has to face difficulties. History gives more evidence of this as on June 28, 1918, in British papers a public notice appeared that those who are having 'Spanish flu' symptoms must have Formamints tablets for cure which are basically vitamins. Even on that serious situation they were making money by false advertisements.
The final step according to Rosenberg is called 'Negotiating Public Response'. The basis of this step is that the government and the health system of the country is called in control of the response of the common people. This step is important as it indicates the balance between the government's imposed management, the health care guidelines and the public response. The government took several health care guidelines by focusing to keep people isolated or quarantined. However, because of the social and economic differences of a society or country, many people denied to oblige this decision. It is evident in our country Bangladesh that, many emigrants returned here with the virus, disobeyed the health guidelines and spread the virus among other people.
The relationship between rumour and pandemic has been existing in the society since time immemorial. People should behave responsibly while spreading any news about any pandemic. Authenticity must be checked before someone terrifies others. Law enforcement agencies cannot work alone to stop spreading rumor about Covid-19. We the people have to work wisely to stop spreading rumours as we are actually in our anxiety spreading rumors knowingly or unknowingly.
The writer is Senior Lecturer, Department of Law, East West University , Bangladesh