Coronavirus misinformation floods Lenasia

Naeem Moosa sent a patient to be tested for Covid-19, and within hours misinformation had swept through Lenasia in Johannesburg. Now the doctor has to curb panic as well as try to save lives.

It started like any other Monday. General practitioner Naeem Moosa strolled into his practice in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, greeted his receptionist and the few patients in the waiting area, and settled down to work. An ordinary routine he’s been through thousands of times since he graduated as a doctor in 2000.

But these are not ordinary times, and a patient with flu-like symptoms coupled with the viral nature of the spread of misinformation on social media has led to fear, panic and a doctor more frustrated by fake news than concerned with the possibility of contracting Covid-19.

At a little past noon, Moosa called the next patient in line into his consulting room. She had “flu-like symptoms”, so he began asking about her travel history. She had travelled to Italy earlier in the year and had also come into contact with Italian people about two weeks previously.

Italy is one of the countries most severely affected by Covid-19, with around 24 000 confirmed cases, according to the Italian ministry of health. “My main concern was her contact history,” says Moosa. He called a fellow senior physician in for a second opinion, who recommended that the woman be tested for Covid-19 immediately as a precaution.

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A nearby lab gave Moosa instructions on how to proceed in getting the patient to the lab so she could be tested. Moosa then told the five patients in his waiting room, as well as his receptionist, of the situation and sent them home, telling them to minimise their contact with others and await the results of the test in 48 hours.

Next, Moosa called his wife to ask her to take their children and his elderly parents to another location. In accordance with best medical practice, his plan was to self-isolate to protect them and the community at large should he have contracted the virus. At this time, no one had tested positive for Covid-19 as the results were still two days away from being confirmed.

But by later that same afternoon, misinformation about the incident had already begun to circulate by means of WhatApp and Facebook messages among Lenasia residents.

“COVID 19 has hit Lenasia. 10 families quarantined,” read one such message. It went on to label the patient as irresponsible and said she had visited a nearby pharmacy, spreading further panic and misinformation. “Who knows how many others she put at risk. Who knows how far this went,” the message continued.

Similar WhatsApp messages spread quickly from phone to phone, causing alarm among residents even though lab results were not yet in.

Frustrated and upset

Moosa was at a loss as to how the misinformation had spread so quickly. “I have no idea. I need to find out who the first person was who sent this message out. If I can find the person who started this ignorant message … I think this person needs to be educated in the correct way. First of all, on how to correctly use social media and secondly, on how to send out correct messages,” he said, admitting to feeling frustrated and upset at the way the misinformation had spread out of control.

“They’ve also created a panic in the local community. People must remember one thing, a patient’s health and safety comes first and that is what we as medical practitioners pride ourselves on. And if you’re sending out unverified information, that can be very, very harmful to a lot of people.”

Exasperated, Moosa spoke to Radio Islam and started sending out his own statements on WhatsApp groups to combat the spread of panic. The patient in question was not even from Lenasia, according to Moosa.

17 March 2020: Naeem Moosa closed his practice in Lenasia and went into self-isolation after sending a patient to be tested for the coronavirus.

‘People just don’t understand’

Certain workers are at higher risk of exposure than others to the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, according to the United States Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for workplace safety regulations.

Nurses, doctors, lab and morgue workers are among those at the highest risk. In these extraordinary times, governments and fellow citizens should be providing these workers with extra support. Residents can help by stopping the spread of misinformation and alarmism on social media and online groups.

As for Moosa, his self-isolation is not proving to be as relaxing as he thought it would be. His phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from as far away as Dubai from people wanting to know if he has Covid-19, or from patients who visited his practice two weeks ago wanting to know if they should get tested. “None of my family has slept because their phones have been going crazy the entire night. I thought, I’m at home, I’ll get some rest. But the phone doesn’t stop ringing.”

He is alone at home and says he has begun to miss one-on-one conversations with family members, but that he’s in good spirits and not too concerned about the results, which he should receive by 18 March.

The most frustrating thing for him has been the spread of misinformation and panic. “People just don’t understand what they are doing to you emotionally, and the kind of negative impact that a few wrong words on WhatsApp can have on an entire community. You need to be socially responsible. Don’t copy and paste every message that you get.”

As for the results, whatever they are, Moosa says he’ll cross that bridge when he gets to it. “Like I tell my patients, ‘You only need to stress when I stress. If I’m not stressed, you don’t need to stress.’”

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