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?”
“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!”
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.