A new study by a group of international infectious disease researchers found that COVID-19 related rumours, stigma and conspiracy theories sometimes had lethal outcomes for those who believe them.
They scraped 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories, communicated in 25 languages from 87 different countries from social media.
“Misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritised over evidence-based guidelines,” wrote the researchers in their study.
The deadly outcome of this misinformation during a health pandemic was that people used unsafe methods of either “protecting” themselves or “treating” COVID-19.
“For example, a popular myth that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus was circulating in different parts of the world,” the authors said.
“Following this misinformation, approximately 800 people have died, whereas 5,876 have been hospitalised and 60 have developed complete blindness after drinking methanol as a cure of coronavirus.”
The incident the team mentions took place in Iran, but was not the only one they found. In India, around 12 people drank alcohol made from toxic datura seeds, following the advice of a video circulating on social media. Some of these were children.
Not all theories and rumours resulted in death or injury, and the researchers acknowledged the limitations in their study as they could not follow up with all the information they found. However, they still believe it is worth placing effort behind curbing misinformation for the betterment of the public.
“Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation,” they said.