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COVID-19: The Outbreak Of Fake News In Durgapur Of West Bengal

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

I got startled, when I got an early morning call a few days ago from a friend stuck in another State in this lockdown. He called me up to tell me how dire the situation was in Durgapur, my hometown. He was born and raised in my city, but had moved out to settle in another part of the country. He would have moved out to another country altogether if not for the lockdown.

If his words were to be believed, there were at least 15 corona-positive patients there, and they were out on a mission – to infect everyone in Durgapur! This was the day of my daughter’s 14th birthday, and I wasn’t going to let the lockdown stomp over her spirit. My wife and I had done whatever we could with our eroded income; she had been busy in the kitchen, cooking my daughter’s favourite dishes since early in the morning. Prateek (name changed) began with a slurred speech; possible effects of midnight booze.

“Hey, how are you man?”

“Oh, wow! It’s been a long time since we last spoke! How are you? I am doing fine!”

“Yes, it’s been quite a while. When was the last time we spoke? Guess when you sent me your CV looking for a job, right?”

“Yes, that was four years ago.”

“Anyway, I got this bad news regarding Durgapur you know?”

“What news?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t curate bad news anymore (at this point, I laugh).”

“Are you a moron or what? There are at least 15 corona-positive patients roaming everywhere in Durgapur! They are all related to the Nizamuddin scam! Bloody troglodytes! These people are everywhere, like pests, spreading the disease like locusts! They haven’t even spared Durgapur. I am surprised you are so nonchalant!”

The locked down roads: A glimpse of Durgapur amidst the corona lockdown. Image (c) Hirak D

I kept feigning the kind of naivety that fries the brains of presumptuous corporate top bosses, who are yet to taste grand failures in their lives. Needless to say, my friend lost his cool and cut the conversation short. He wasn’t interested in stretching a conversation with a borderline stupid proletariat. But I was aware of every bit of the news he was so desperately trying to convey, and it was, as usual, fake news!

Durgapur used to be a sleepy little village founded on the banks of the once mighty Damodar River. In its 250 odd years of existence, Durgapur has gradually evolved into many things; from being called the ‘Ruhr of Bengal’ in the fifties and sixties to being pitied upon as a fading dream in the late nineties, and then resurging as a microcosm of cosmopolitan India, Durgapur has seen and done it all! It is now deemed a ‘Smart City’, although I have apprehensions about the ‘smart’ moniker.

Although Durgapur’s population has expanded at an exponential rate, it isn’t all that apparent, except for its few busy hotspots, where people throng in large numbers, giving a scale of how swollen this city is now. The city limits have expanded on all four sides in tandem with the burgeoning population and that has stopped Durgapur from feeling the choke of crowds.

Back in the eighties, when I was growing up, the Steel Township area — the region dotted with quarters for Durgapur Steel Plant and Alloy Steel Plant employees — used to be a tightly-knit community. What happened in one household reverberated in another, and people poured in to celebrate or mourn together as one extended family. But all that is gone now. We stick to ourselves now, and look at our neighbours with keen eyes, as if trying to spot a hint of prosperity or devastation.

In the wee hours of 10th May, a WhatsApp notification alerted me that I had forgotten to switch my phone off before going to bed. With sleepy eyes, I pulled out my phone from beneath my pillow to find out who this insolent prick was, and lost my sleep immediately afterwards. A much respected journalist friend of mine had sent me breaking news: “First COVID Positive patient in Durgapur found, family quarantined, administration mobilised in emergency protocol!

In the next few hours, he kept sending me updates on how the patient, an elderly Muslim man, had been moved to the COVID-19 treatment facility in the fringes of my city, and what precautions the administration was taking to stop a possible outbreak in the area. Now, Durgapur has been doing pretty well ever since the pandemic hit the Indian shores. All through the lockdown, not a single case was reported, and except for a few rogues here and there, people had been generally respectful of the restrictions.

A millionaire had turned his fledgling hospital in the fringes of my city into an authorised COVID-19 treatment facility for five districts by the dint of his political connections. But even with such a large area to cater to, the facility seems to be doing pretty well. However, the crux of the matter is there had been no case of corona in Durgapur so far, and now, the virus had started expanding its slimy tentacles in my complacent hometown!

Moments after receiving the news, I was rocked by the second report; another elderly man — this time a Hindu — had been diagnosed positive with COVID-19. With a premonition pulsating in my mind, I opened my Facebook app. It was still early morning, and the social networking platform had already been infected with the other plague – fake news! Little did I know that a volley of WhatsApp notifications and a few frantic calls were on their way! It was going to be an unusual birthday for my daughter.

It is no secret that India is reeling under this new-age pandemic called fake news or false news. While it is not unique to India, and the entire globe is under its grip, the problem seems to have festered into a cancerous tumour in our homeland. A lion’s share of Indians draw more than 50% of their daily dose of news from digital platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, with the latter on its way to replacing the morning newspaper deliverywallah!

Except for a few sensible people in a country who are on the verge of being overrun by spiteful bigots, no one verifies the news. What is delivered via these platforms is taken as gospel truth, and ensues reactions that are often blood splattering. There is a special place for violence and retributive rage in our blessed land. We seem to enjoy seething in hatred and slobber up anything that contains graphic imagery and tales of exploitation. It is a kind of fetish that is slowly consuming all of us, and the popular web series reflect our taste.

While there is a spike in the circulation of tirades and propaganda right before elections, the tide never seems to ebb completely. There is always a steady stream of tainted news seeping into our mobile devices. I tried to scour through the internet to find out if I could connect the spread of fake news to murders, and stumbled across a BBC news report from 13th November 2018. According to this report, at least 31 people had lost their lives to disinformation — a more academic term for fake news — in 2017 and 2018.

Jump cut to 2020, and the Palghar district of Maharashtra was rocked by a bloodcurdling lynching of two Hindu ascetics on 16th of April. The culprit, reports say, was fake news circulating on WhatsApp! On 10th May 2020, I was witnessing this veritable evil unfold and smother Durgapur.

By noonday of 10th May, Durgapur was rife with all sorts of rumours. There was a voice clip circulating on WhatsApp of a woman screaming her lungs out and warning people not to venture anywhere near the area of Durgapur’s first patient’s residence. The number of infected was rising every half hour on Facebook, irrespective of the actual figure, and by afternoon, the second patient was pronounced dead, on Facebook of course.

Between soaring summer temperatures, a midsummer tempest, and a failing electricity supply, we managed to cut my daughter’s birthday cake in candle light. Every distant relative, who had called my wife to wish my daughter, had little to talk about the birthday girl. The news had reached them — even the ones who were living in distant corners of the globe — that corona had reached Durgapur. We had been playing traffic lights in our country since the day COVID-19 had struck us.

All of us in Durgapur were happy to dwindle between the green and orange zone monikers. But by 11th of May, the long faces in the bazaars had stretched longer and looked grimmer. The red zone days had dawned upon us! The most timid among us decided it was time to scurry into the little cubbyholes of their bedrooms. The proverbial count of corona-positive patients had soared to mythical heights. The general consensus was that we were on the course of becoming another Kolkata!

The whole thing fizzed off in an anticlimactic fuzz when the second test reports of both the actual patients were slapped on our faces. The reports were negative. The patients did not have the virus and were soon released. So, Durgapur was back to being a safe haven once more, with zero cases! But, fervent conspiracy theorists are still out there with their fascinating tales on how the local administration has actually suppressed data, and how Durgapur is now the new hot bed of the novel coronavirus.

Whether or not the administration has actually suppressed data is a debatable matter, and we may never get to know the truth. But, with the popular tendency of morphing facts into viral content at the expense of veracity, we shouldn’t be surprised if they have actually suppressed information. When two men were presumed to be ill, we killed dozens on Facebook and Whatsapp. With this virus showing no signs of stopping, it may well have reached my hometown.

It is only a matter of time before the pandemic strikes deep into the heart of Durgapur. How will people react then? What if five people actually fall sick with this plague all of a sudden? What will the purveyors of fake news say then — 1,000 new cases and a 100 people dead? We may have to learn to live with COVID-19. But we need a strong vaccine for fake news, right now.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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