Younten Tshedup 

COVID-19 is spreading across the globe, so is misinformation about the disease. Bhutanese are no exception.

Social media is rife with false claims and fake news. For instance, drinking alcohol and eating garlic can help prevent an individual from contracting the virus. Eating ice cream should be avoided while gargling with warm saline water helps prevent the virus from entering the lungs are some of the widespread misinformation on various social media platforms.

In the wake of the first positive COVID-19 case in the country, health officials said people should rely on the remedies and information issued only by the ministry and Prime Ministers’ Office (PMO).

With unlimited access to information online, the global population no longer obtain their information from traditional news organisations today. This has made the spread of misinformation and ‘fake news’ more difficult to control.

To make matters worse, people have started using official seals and symbols to amplify the misinformation.

In a recent case, using the UNICEF logo people have shared unauthenticated information to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

UNICEF Bhutan’s representative Dr Will Parks said, “A recent erroneous online message circulating on various social media platforms in Bhutan purporting to be a UNICEF communication appears to indicate, among other things, that avoiding ice cream and other cold foods can help prevent the onset of the disease. This information is untrue and not from UNICEF.”

Requesting the public to stop sharing the information as it could leave people unprotected and vulnerable to the virus, he asked the public to seek accurate information on the disease from verified sources, such as the official Facebook pages of UNICEF, the WHO, and the health ministry.

“If you or a family member begins to feel unwell and develops a fever or shortness of breath, a cough or a respiratory illness, immediately call 112 and seek medical attention. For additional information, call the COVID-19 hotline number: 2121,” he added.

Health minister Dechen Wangmo, said that while misinformation and fake news are initiated by a single person, it was the public and responsible people who shared those posts and further spread false information.

“Our request from day one was that if any one of you are in doubt regarding the COVID-19, the only trusted and reliable source of information was the PMO and the health ministry,” she said.

A media team within the ministry is also scanning online platforms and working on tracing fake news, the minister added. “For now the team is trying to counter any fake news with the correct information. We are also trying to work with the media houses to see how we can tackle these issues effectively.”

Lyonpo said that while every possible measure was being considered to control the spread of fake news, people should take the responsibility to address the growing concern.

Member of Parliament from Draagteng Langthil, Gyem Dorji, said that with the growing spread of misinformation especially through online groups, MPs have taken up the responsibility to disseminate correct information and counter any misinformation in their respective constituencies.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the news of a quarantined suspect escaping the facility in Paro was untrue. While police guard all the quarantine facilities in Paro, Punakha and Thimphu, the security is not to confine the suspects but to prevent others from entering those facilities, she said.

“We would like to thank all those who are in quarantine for their cooperation. They are serving the country in their own ways.”

As of yesterday, there were 62 people, who were the first contacts with the patient, under quarantine in Thimphu, Paro, and Punakha of which six were quarantined in their residences.

Another 330, who were secondary contacts, who had contact with the first 62, are in self-quarantine. They are being closely monitored by the health ministry, the minister said.

“If one of first contacts tests positive then their contacts among the 330 will be placed under quarantine.”

Meanwhile, the health minister said that she was in constant contact with the daughter of the 76-year-old COVID-19 patient, sharing the status of his health.

“We have been providing her reassurance that we’re doing whatever is in our capacity to take care of her father. He is a guest in our country and we will extend all our courtesy and do our best,” the minister said. “The daughter has been apologetic every time we talk, but it is not her fault nor is it her father’s.”