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Monkeypox and misinformation

While governments are busy purchasing, procuring and stockpiling smallpox vaccine (monkeypox belongs to the same family as smallpox), the misinformation engines have not been idle. Monkeypox has yet again become a contested site to dish out conspiracies theories or play out past or existing rivalries, says Pradeep Krishnatray, adding that in such trying situations, misinformation provides immediate remedy, an easy solution, and a semblance of explanation on which it rests

Another zoonotic viral disease has reached India: Monkeypox. Recently, a 35-year old travelling from UAE landed in Kerala and became the first person in Southeast Asia to suffer from it. Soon, the number climbed to five cases.

Monkeypox, called so because it was first identified in laboratory monkeys in Denmark, is endemic to West and Central African countries (Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc). However, India is a non-endemic country. It does not have a history of monkeypox outbreaks. Despite this, if an Indian has brought home the disease, it indicates how an integrated world can quickly become a health hotspot. It also tells us the rapidity with which diseases travel around the world. COVID-19, for example, took about three months to become a pandemic.

Monkeypox took even less time. Its outbreak was confirmed in May 2022. An individual carried it from Nigeria to United Kingdom. In the following two weeks or so, cases of the diseases were reported from much of the developed world: Europe, North and South America, Australia, even Asia. The same month, the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention alerted countries in the region about the threat posed by the virus. In June, the WHO declared it an ‘evolving health threat’. On July 23, it had to up the warning and term the outbreak a ‘global health emergency’. During this period, almost 75 countries and territories affected by it reported over 16000 cases and 12 deaths (five according to WHO).

In July, the disease reached India. The Kerala health system took little time to diagnose the case. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare came out immediately with guidelines to deal with the disease.  The government directed airport and port health officers to be vigilant, and isolate and send samples to the National Institute of Virology of any sick passenger with a travel history to infected countries.

It would be a mistake to think that only viruses and bacteria travel across continents. Information too travels equally, if not more, fast. As more countries sound an alarm bell and the number of infected cases increases, monkeypox no longer remains a health condition. In some quarters, its emergence in so-called backward countries of Africa has resulted in the disease acquiring racist overtones. Because several cases in Europe are detected among homosexual men, the stigma against them is being further accentuated.

The CDC’s advice to gay and bisexual men to be careful has only played into the hands of mischief-mongers. Well-meaning experts and others have said that not sexual intimacy, but close contact with patients is responsible for transmission, has had some traction. However, most cases in the developed world are found among adults practising high-risk behaviours (men having sex with men).The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) has expressed concern about the impact on its sexual health services.

Mindful of the sociology of monkeypox, WHOis contemplating renaming the disease in order to shed the stigma and racism associated with it, reminding us about how leprosy was re-named Hansen’s Disease and kusht in India. Amidst all this, China is an exception. Following WHO expert’s clarification, it cautioned its people not to stigmatise those suffering from monkeypox. Not many countries have done so.

While governments are busy purchasing, procuring and stockpiling smallpox vaccine (monkeypox belongs to the same family as smallpox), the misinformation engines have not been idle. For several of them, monkeypox has yet again become a contested site to dish out conspiracies theories or play out past or existing rivalries. A host on Russian state TV derided European nations afflicted with monkeypox and observed that countries afflicted with monkeypox are the very countries that are supplying weapons to Ukraine (For the Russian TV audience the implication is clear. “We do not have cases of Monkeypox, why do they?”).

The misinformation extends to more recent health events. Some conspirators claim that COVID-19 vaccine has given rise to monkeypox (the proximity in time effect). Others have gone further and asserted that monkeypox is the new COVID-19 and that the US has created it in a lab. Some conspiracy theorists hold Bill Gates responsible for the spread, as they did him for Covid 19. Finally, there are those that summarily deny the existence or occurrence ofmonkeypoxand call the entire phenomenona grand hoax played out on the international stage.

In the deluge of misinformation, occurring mostly on social media and some websites, sane voices do not get enough space or time. The Chinese government, for instance, has not held anyone responsible, but the Chinese popular social media platform, Weibo, is rife with accusations that the US has ‘let monkeypox loose’. In other words, the US had planned such a diabolical bio-weapon attack, and that monkeypox was in the making.

Again, a recent but completely unconnected event was used to establish the veracity of the claim. In this particular case, the claim relied on the 2021 report put out on bio-security preparedness by a US non-profit, nonpartisan organisation, Nuclear Threat Initiative. The report created a scenario of a monkeypox pandemic which, unfortunately, turned out to be true a year later. Some die-hard champions of unfettered freedom have red-flagged about impending ‘monkeypox lockdowns’ and ‘monkeypox tyranny’.

The conspirators’ playbook is easy to read now. It targets individuals, institutions, governments. As it travels everywhere, the source of the information is lost. The message scores over the source. It becomes potent and powerful when a sudden (health) emergency hits a large number of people across nations who have nowhere to take refuge. Uncertainty gives rise to multiplicity of opinions, which leads to confusion. For example, if those affected in the developed world are people who practice high-risk behaviours, why are children in Africa suffering from it? We do not as yet have a convincing or complete answer.

In such trying situations, misinformation provides immediate remedy, an easy solution, and a semblance of explanation on which it rests. It provides comfort and hope when both are in short supply. The sane voices, on the other hand, usually deny, but cannot promise immediate relief. When people have a straw to clutch on to, they don’t expect prayers to save their life.

(The writer teaches at ICFAI University, Hyderabad, and is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi.)

July – September 2022

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