India’s Coronavirus-Linked Suicides Prove Misinformation Can Be Fatal

COVID-19 patients are dying by suicide, but so are those who have not gotten tested or those whose results were negative. Here's one of the reasons why.
July 1, 2020, 2:56pm
suicide fake news misinformation india
Fact-checkers and journalists have flagged an alarming rise in instances of misinformation during the pandemic in India. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Last week, the residents of Tirunelveli city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu woke up to the news of the passing of the owner of an iconic sweet shop. Hari Singh of the 110-year-old Iruttu Kadai died on June 25.

Singh, 80, who was admitted in the hospital for a urinary tract infection treatment, had found out that he was COVID-19 positive. “The hospital staff told all of us to leave him alone,” Nayan Singh, a relative, told VICE News. “He used to get stressed watching COVID-19 news. But that day must have scared him.” The same day, his family members told VICE News, the hospital staff found him dead**.**

Tirunelveli’s Superintendent of Police Deepak M Damor told The Indian Express that Singh died by suicide.

Singh's case is not an isolated one. Indian researchers created a public database that tracks non COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic. Of the 884 deaths recorded, 125 are categorised as “suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness and lack of freedom of movement or inability to go home.”

“This is not even representative of the entire picture. This is just a glimpse,” said Kanika Sharma, a US-based researcher who helped collate the tracker.

VICE News too reviewed media reports across the country, and found at least 11 cases where COVID-19 patients in India died by suicide.

Himanshu Vaswani, a Mumbai-based marketing professional who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on June 1, understood the fear and desolation brought by the virus. “The isolation drove me mad, and with nothing else to do, the more I read about the disease, the more paranoid I got,” he told VICE News, adding that “conflicting” information online about the disease made things worse.

Dr Harjit Singh Batti, a doctor at the Manipal Hospital in New Delhi, reiterated this fear. He recalled a day when a 27-year-old patient of his tested positive for COVID-19. “She started crying and shouting. She asked, ‘How did I get it?’ ‘How will I be saved?’,” Bhatti said.

Suicide Myths

While panic in emergency wards are, as Bhatti put it, “human nature”, the fear around the novel coronavirus has a pattern. “No matter how much you counsel them, some who test positive cannot stop panicking,” said Bhatti. “Of particular note is how patients are hyper aware of symptoms such as breathlessness, which they see in ads or TV. They feel it even more intensely.”

Dr Atul Gogia, a senior consultant at the department of internal medicine and infectious disease at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, noted that much of the anxiety and panic in COVID-19 positive patients is because of the amount of information out there. “There is so much material online and in social media. Many are confused about the treatment and outcome,” Gogia told VICE News.

In April, misinformation was flagged by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as a “contamination” that is risking people’s lives. In India, even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was compelled to warn the citizens against it.

Fact-checkers and journalists have flagged an alarming rise in instances of misinformation—sometimes from government sources—during the pandemic. Fake news has been linked to Islamophobia, conspiracy theories, unverified herbal cures and mass-gatherings of migrant workers. Even now, unverified claims—such as herbal company Patanjali’s “COVID-19 cure”, which was flagged by official bodies as misleading—are doing the rounds.

Dr Sumaiya Shaikh, the Sweden-based founding-editor of Indian fact-checking organisation Alt News Science, said that a major fear is that of mortality. “People don’t know the real information on the virus, and how it affects the. body in individual cases,” she told VICE News. “They think that once they get coronavirus, they’re going to have a really terrible death. This is especially true for people who are at risk, like the elderly or those with low immunity.”

The tracker for non COVID-19 deaths by suicide also documents those who either did not get tested, or tested negative. VICE News found news reports about 45 such deaths across 28 cities, villages and towns.

One of the first such cases in the world was reported on February 11 in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district. A farmer died by suicide because he assumed he had the virus. In Uttar Pradesh, another farmer died by suicide because he wanted to “save his entire village from being infected with the coronavirus.”

This is not the first time an outbreak has led to an increase in suicides, but this may the most severe given how technology and social media has increased the spread of misinformation. The 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong saw a similar trend. “Very little has been published on [suicides linked to outbreaks],” professor Anthony David, director of University College London’s Institute of Mental Health, told VICE News. “Some evidence from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 showed a 'spike' in suicides that coincided with the large wave of mortality.”

Indians have received scant mental health support during the outbreak. The southern state of Kerala employed 95 mental health counsellors to talk to over 150,000 people under quarantine and 700-odd patients in hospitals to cope with the anxiety and isolation. The government of the western state of Maharashtra, which has the largest number of positive COVID-19 patients at 174,761, launched its toll-free helpline number for all citizens.

In April, India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences reported giving counselling on mental health and psychosocial issues related to COVID-19 to 16,000 callers and their families across 21 states and union territories.

The last-available suicide data, compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), is for 2018. At the moment, data on suicides in 2020 is either not available or is unofficial, like Sharma’s tracker.

On June 28, police officials from the north Indian city of Ludhiana said that 100 residents had died by suicide during the COVID-19 related lockdown that began on March 26.

“We’ve been told that at this point, data is oil, and that’s true,” Dr Soumitra Pathare, a psychiatrist and the director of the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy, said. “The NCRB should release March-June suicide data so that we can track patterns and rate of deaths during the pandemic. One can use this data to plan interventions better.”

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