As more countries ramp up measures to slow the coronavirus pandemic, there is one thing that spreads faster than the virus: misinformation.
In fact, there are so many false claims circulating about the new disease that the World Health Organization (WHO) has called it an “infodemic” and launched a myth-busting webpage.
Dubious advice, conspiracy theories and fake news are proliferating on social media and messaging applications in Ukraine, too.
Limited knowledge about the new virus and low trust in the healthcare system drive many Ukrainians to seek remedies online. Often, what they find is false information, which then gets amplified by media outlets or goes viral on social media or messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram.
The Ukrainian authorities and medical experts are attempting to fight misinformation and hoaxes, but they are up a seemingly never-ending flow of inaccurate and provocative stories.
The novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China in December. Since then, it has infected over 200,000 people in 163 countries and killed over 8,000. There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for the virus.
However, speculation about the origin of the coronavirus has been a mainstay of the global internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two conspiracy theories appear to be particularly popular in Ukraine.
One alleges that American mystery and science fiction writer Dean Koontz predicted the pandemic in his 1981 novel, which mentions a virus called Wuhan-400. (He did not.)
Another common theory claims that the coronavirus was a biological weapon leaked from a secret laboratory in Wuhan.
Alyona Romanyuk, an editor of On the Other Side of News, a website that debunks manipulations and hoaxes in the media, says that many conspiracy theories enter Ukrainian media from Russia.
The “virus leakage” theory is one such example. It originated from an interview with Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and expert in biological warfare, published by The Washington Times, a conservative U.S. news site known for sharing misinformation.
Although Shoham never claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was responsible for the coronavirus outbreak, other U.S. media outlets picked up the idea. Then the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story about the Wuhan lab citing Shoham, twisting the context and establishing the present conspiracy theory. That was later amplified by other Russian media outlets and blogs, according to fact-checkers.
Even the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, fell for this conspiracy theory. In a radio interview in early March, he said that “the coronavirus leaked from a secret lab in Wuhan.”
Bad health advice
The World Health Organization has made it clear that there is no vaccine, nor medication to prevent or treat COVID-19. Antibiotics don’t help either. Doctors recommend treating the symptoms of the disease, such as cough and fever.
Washing your hands often, not touching your face with unwashed hands and practicing social distancing from others are essential recommendations.
But this has not stopped a spate of prayers, health advice and advertisements for various medications and products purporting to protect against the coronavirus.
Some of the most common recommendations circulating among Ukrainians are traditional methods for treating colds and the flu, such as eating garlic, drinking more warm fluids, sucking on zinc lozenges and taking vitamin C.
One Facebook user even claimed that soaking a medical mask in warm saltwater mixed with dishwashing liquid makes it virus-proof.
Garlic may have some antimicrobial properties, the WHO said, but there’s no evidence it protects against the coronavirus. Staying hydrated is healthy, but neither drinking, nor gargling water “washes down the coronavirus before it gets into the lungs,” as some viral posts falsely suggest.
Zinc lozenges can soothe a sore throat, but they don’t protect from the infection. Moreover, according to pediatrician Evgeniy Komarovsky, ascorbic acid doesn’t boost immunity as many falsely believe. It may even cause kidney stones in too large of doses.
Since the coronavirus enters the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, rinsing and gargling remain popular folk remedies to protect oneself. Here the online hivemind suggests a variety of options: from common saltwater (which helps treat a runny nose, but doesn’t prevent respiratory infections) and vinegar (which may cause chemical burns) to water mixed with baking soda or iodine antiseptic.
Iodine is used for disinfecting wounds and cuts, but is not useful for fighting viruses, according to Illia Burlachenko, assistant professor of internal medicine at the Bohomolets National Medical University.
Online sellers and even pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the current climate of fear and confusion to advertise antiviral prophylactic medications, antiseptics and immune boosting dietary supplements as “prevention of the coronavirus.”
Two professors recommended a common antiseptic solution from one pharmaceutical company as hand sanitizer, nose and eye drops and medication inhaled through a nebulizer, a device used to administer drugs into the lungs for treating asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Infectious disease specialist Yuriy Zhigarev said it was senseless to use a nebulizer as a prophylactic measure in healthy people.
Another pharma company declared that its antiviral herbal drops — a mixture of tufted hairgrass and bushgrass which is sold in pharmacies without a prescription to prevent and treat viruses like the flu, human papillomavirus and herpes — could also kill the coronavirus.
This mixture’s effectiveness has been called into question in the past. The manufacturer paid for all the medical research into it, which was exclusively conducted in post-Soviet countries, according to Romanyuk.
The term “coronavirus” has also become a buzzword to sell food supplements, disinfectants, antibacterial candles, ultraviolet lamps, thermometers, water filters and even floor mops.
OLX, Ukraine’s largest marketplace, told the Kyiv Post in a statement that selling medical drugs online is prohibited by law. The company has tightened its selling policies to prevent sellers from exploiting the coronavirus.
“For our users’ safety and to avoid speculation, we deleted all listings mentioning the word ‘coronavirus,’ with the exception of clothes with prints, books and pets vaccinated from coronavirus since it has no relation to COVID-19,” the company wrote.
There is also no shortage of attempts to tell the “truth” about coronavirus.
One particular message has gone viral on WhatsApp and Viber among Russian-speaking audiences. It cites “a young Russian doctor Yura Klimov who worked in a hospital in Shenzhen, was transferred to Wuhan to study the coronavirus and called his relatives to provide explanations.”
This story has been widely debunked. But some claims from it continue to circulate as separate posts. In one such case, “Russian doctor Klimov” claimed that the coronavirus dies at a temperature of 26-27 degrees Celsius and recommended drinking hot liquids, spending time outside under the sun and taking hot baths. It also said that if a person can hold their breath for 10 seconds, they don’t have the virus.
None of it is true, the WHO said. Neither hot, nor cold weather kills the COVID-19 virus. Not only are hot baths and heat not effective against the disease, they may lead to skin burns. Similarly, UV lamps don’t kill the coronavirus.
Besides bad advice, there are straight-up hoaxes being spread in Ukraine.
Ukrainian users have been sharing a fake warning about plans to spray Kyiv and other cities with disinfectant from helicopters “tonight at 11:00 p.m.” without a specific date.
In the past few days, parents of schoolchildren have received fake messages on the parents’ Viber chats claiming that children won’t be allowed to play outdoors during the quarantine. The parents could face fines or prison for letting them out, the messages claim.
Ukraine has already experienced the perils of coronavirus-related disinformation. In February, panic gripped the small town of Novy Sanzhary after it was chosen as the place to quarantine evacuees from Wuhan for two weeks.
Protesting residents blocked the road and threw stones at buses carrying the evacuees. The fears were fueled by rumors and a fake email purportedly sent by the health ministry claiming the evacuees were infected. In reality, none of the evacuees ever contracted coronavirus.
The most recent fearmongering report claimed that a plane from Milan with infected passengers on board had arrived in Kyiv on March 12. A little-known blogger, Anton Gura, who introduced himself as a leader of the medical workers’ trade union and was on that flight, live broadcast it to his nearly 35,000 followers on Facebook.
“Many on board have bad symptoms. They coughed and took anti-fever drugs,” he said in the video, adding that most passengers were foreigners who left Italian hospitals and didn’t undergo temperature checks upon arrival in Kyiv.
Both Ukraine’s health ministry and the airline that operated the flight denied the report. Only three passengers with suspected symptoms were sent to a hospital for further lab tests for COVID-19.
Several Ukrainian websites, as well as Telegram and YouTube channels with tens of thousands of subscribers, further shared Gura’s videos. The blogger also appeared on a top television show, spreading his story.
Some Ukrainian healthcare professionals have stepped up to counter misinformation. Former Health Minister Ulana Suprun has been raising awareness of the coronavirus through Facebook. Pediatrician Evgeniy Komarovsky — a Ukrainian figure akin to America’s Dr. Benjamin Spock — has dedicated his widely popular YouTube videos to debunking myths. Fedir Lapiy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and senior lecturer at the National Medical Academy of Postgraduate Education, has started a free course on the coronavirus aimed at a broad audience on the Ukrainian online learning platform Prometheus.
Infectious disease specialist Zhigarev says doctors should learn to explain medicine in simple terms so that an ordinary person can understand them. “Many can’t do that, and that’s why people prefer to read what’s written in simple language,” he told the Kyiv Post.
To fight incorrect information, Ukraine’s health ministry has partnered with Facebook, which has 14 million users in the country. The social network will push updates from verified sources such as the ministry website and the government coronavirus information website, covid19.com.ua.
Last week, Facebook announced it would also support global and national public health authorities by limiting harmful content about COVID-19, promoting accurate information from official sources and blocking ads aimed at sowing panic or selling faux cures for the virus.
The social network will also give the World Health Organization unlimited free ads.
As the coronavirus pandemic increases its reach, this is positive news. But it may have come too late for Ukraine.
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