Fear, fake news cause attacks on hundreds of COVID-19 frontliners


Hundreds of attacks have been recorded against healthcare workers fighting coronavirus in dozens of countries. Incidents, including physical attacks, verbal harassment and threats took place from fearful communities.

“It’s a by-product of the new, novel, infectious disease – there’s a lot of fear,” said Sean Christie, a spokesman for MSF in South Africa.

“Even for areas that have experienced very big HIV and TB epidemics, this was just different. The media response was so overwhelming, and (there is) so much social media misinformation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although governments and charities have launched information campaigns, more work is needed to address fake news, make sure people have access to the facts and include local communities in decision-making, aid workers said.

Drawing on first-hand accounts and media reports, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said incidents, including physical attacks, verbal harassment and threats took place in more than 40 countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

In Colombia, ambulances were blocked from entering a town to screen for COVID-19 cases, said the ICRC, which recorded 611 incidents targeting health workers, patients and facilities from February to July.

In South Africa, a testing station and a clinic were torched by people who did not want responders in their neighbourhood, said medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

“Fear of contracting the disease and the lack of basic knowledge concerning COVID-19 are often the underlying reasons behind violent acts,” said Esperanza Martinez, the ICRC’s head of health.

“To protect health care staff, medical facilities and patients from violence, it is of paramount importance to disseminate accurate information,” she said in a statement.

Some of the most common beliefs are that coronavirus is man-made, that it is not real, or that new testing facilities or health centres will bring it to communities.

Some people in Haiti believe hospital patients are given a deadly injection to increase the number of coronavirus deaths so that the government can attract more aid, according to one community leader.

In Gambia, there have been no attacks but people are avoiding health facilities out of fear and trying to self-diagnose their illnesses, said Baba Balajo, a programme manager for the humanitarian agency Catholic Relief Services.

“We have had people expressing the fear that nowadays, when you go to the health facilities you are always diagnosed with COVID,” he said.

“It’s a problem because people now resort to going to pharmacies, and that may not resolve their health problems.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)