Even as the Indian government is fighting the coronavirus, it’s also having to fight the misinformation that’s been spread about its efforts.
Earlier today, a doctor had claimed that there was a shortage of masks in India. “Please don’t send me to war without weapons @PMOIndia. Please arrange #PersonalProtectiveEquipment for us doctors ASAP. We need #N95masks #HazmatSuits to defeat #Corona. Sincerely yours, an Indian Doctor,” Dr Kamna Kakkar had tweeted. Her tweets had become increasingly more dramatic. “When they arrive, please send N95 masks and gloves to my grave. Taali aur thaali baja dena waha! Regards, frustrated sarkari doctor,” she had said.
Her tweets immediately began being retweeted by prominent leftist voices. But that’s when people noticed something strange — the account had been made only this month, yet still had thousands of followers. Also, the account tweeted something that was clearly false — Dr Kamna Kakkar claimed that because the coronavirus tests cost Rs. 4,500, it was unlikely that anyone would be able to get them done. But the government of India is picking up the cost of coronavirus tests, which is something a doctor would have known. When this was pointed out, the account deleted this particular tweet, but still kept the others up.
At this point, the account came to the notice of Rahul Gandhi. He shared one of her tweets claiming the shortage of masks. “I am feeling sad, because this was completely avoidable. We had time to prepare. We should have taken this threat much more seriously and have been much better prepared,” he said.
This immediately legitimized the account, and story was in news portals across the country. The Hindu even went ahead and wrote an article on how a doctor had exposed the “poor health infrastructure” in the country.
But it turns out that there was no shortage of masks at all, because Dr Kamna Kakkar has now apologized for her tweet. “I apologize for the misinformation/panic created. N95 masks are available in our institution & will be given to those in direct contact with Corona patient. There are plenty of masks — we just didn’t know which door to knock. ICMR guidelines have been rapidly changing,” she said. Soon after posting this tweet, the account was disabled.
There are a number of red flags about Dr. Kamna Kakkar’s activity. The account was less than a month old, but managed to get enough traction to get retweeted by Rahul Gandhi. The account also clearly spread fake news — it claimed that tests cost Rs. 4,500, while they are free for patients. And when confronted, the account was deleted.
This is a pattern that was seen with another account today. Earlier in the day, an account by the name of Vasundhara Sangwan had also claimed that there was a shortage of masks, but it had been revealed that until the last year, the account had the name of Vikramaditya Sangwan. Like with Dr Kamna Kakkar, when this was pointed out, the account was deleted.
In both cases, the attempt was the same — to create an impression that there’s a shortage of masks in India. In Dr. Kamna Kakkar’s instance, the tweet was even shared by Rahul Gandhi to his millions of followers. While the rest of the country is pulling together to fight the coronavirus, there are clearly some motivated actors who’re willing to go to any lengths to spread misinformation and panic.