A group of 300 Indian scientists is fighting the Covid-19 fake news machinery

Difficult times.
Difficult times.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
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Was Covid-19 made in a lab? Is eating non-vegetarian food risky? Can cow urine or cow dung protect me? Do Indians have a better immune system against coronavirus?

Not true, not true, not true, and most likely false.

These are the first few popular hoaxes that a group of Indian scientists has come together and busted as part of a joint effort to fight myths and misinformation about the disease. As the coronavirus has spread across India, crossing 5,000 recorded cases, and accounting for over 160 deaths, so have the rumours and fake news around it, ranging from conspiracy theories about China to nationalist theories about India.

“We have been working on broad issues on the origin, spread and cure for the disease, based on the kind of news we have been seeing doing the rounds,” said Aniket Sule, a science communicator with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai, who is a part of the hoax busting team. “Since science communication is my area of interest, I volunteered to be a part of this effort. In this crisis, everyone has a role and each person can contribute by doing what they know best.”

Fighting the fake news

The hoax busting team is just one of a bunch of groups organised under the voluntary, pan-India effort: Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 (ISRC). Started about two weeks ago, with more than 400 scientists across more than twenty scientific and research institutes in the country, the initiative counts among its volunteers astrophysicists, animal behaviourists, computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, chemists, biologist, doctors, social scientists and others. Their goals include analysing “all available data and support national, state and local governments for evidence-based action,” in addition to verifying and communicating information.

For this, the sub-groups are working on: mathematical modelling of disease spread and transmission, outreach and communication in simple terms for the public and media, translating basic resources in local languages, developing hardware solutions and apps.

“While people in the medical and healthcare community are doing their work, we thought, what about others like us, what can we do?” said R Ramanujam, a theoretical computer science professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai, who initiated the effort. “It’s our responsibility to respond. So we started off with a mailing list, and that grew into a Google group.”

Action plan

The groups have been communicating and coordinating with each other online, with scientists signing up for sub-groups based on their interest and expertise. In a situation like this, it isn’t just medical and healthcare professionals who are relevant.

“How an individual gets infected is definitely a biology problem, but what we are looking at is how an infection spreads in society, and we are dealing with large numbers of people,” said Rahul Siddharthan, a computational biologist at the IMSc.

“Physicists have a lot of experience in dealing with dynamical systems modelling, differential equations, and computer/ data scientists can analyse the data that is available. It has to be an interdisciplinary approach and we need people to be talking and on the same platform.” In some ways, the complete lockdown in India may provide an impetus for new collaborations and for scientists to talk to peers across the country. “Normally you talk to your own colleagues in your own institute, but now it doesn’t matter where you are, you have to anyway talk to everyone online,” said Siddharthan. “Maybe in the future, more new research directions can emerge out of this.”

These scientists are affiliated with some of India’s best-known institutes, including the IITs, IISERs, TIFR, NCBS, and Ashoka University but ISRC is not institution-driven. “We have our regular research and teaching work as well, but this is a voluntary effort alongside that,” said Ramanujam.

Good science is imperative for good policy, especially during a public health crisis like this. “Hopefully by bringing lots of minds together and threshing out ideas on this topic we might be able to do something that’s actually useful for the government,” said Siddharthan.

Stepping up

Though the group is not formally associated with the government, they have been speaking to government officials, to keep them abreast of their work and the outcomes of their discussions. Ramanujam said they have been getting “a positive response.”

The online group itself is a throbbing, vibrant forum with a constant exchange of ideas, links, news items, research papers, arguments and data. Discussions have ranged from the effectiveness of certain drugs under trial to whether transmission in pregnancy is possible, to making affordable ventilators and apps. The outcomes are gradually being put up online, under various heads on their new website.

The science is one part and geared towards other scientists and healthcare professionals, but communication, interpretation and public outreach is the other crucial part.

“In a situation like this it’s important to do two things, one is communicating to people that they need to be alert, not alarmed,” said T. V. Venkateshwaran senior scientist at Vigyan Prasar, a body under the department of science and technology, and a member of two of the sub-groups. “It is neither good for them, nor for society to get worried. It can also lead to anti-social behaviour, for example, calling people from the northeast by names, or stigmatising quarantined people. The other thing is falling for wrongly circulated remedies and rumours. We need to counter all the misinformation going around so people feel at ease.”

In addition to a hoax busting the group is putting together links, videos and articles in Indian languages and also working on translating others.

“I am not an expert in virology or epidemiology or modelling, but I am interested in science communication so I thought I should help with that as well as translation,” said Anindita Bhadra, an animal behaviourist and associate professor at IISER, Kolkata. She believes her strength lies in dissemination. “I am active on social media and that is one way I can help,” she said. “You need people who can transmit all this to the public.”

Though the group is mainly composed of men and women from science, technology and mathematics fields, they hope to draw in more social scientists as well, in the coming days.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.