The World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic last Thursday. But in addition to combating the spread of the disease, health practitioners and governments are also battling an alarming spread of misinformation. “We’re fighting an infodemic,” declared WHO Director General Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
This was the case in the occupied Palestinian territories over the last week, after the virus infected more than 39 people, primarily in the city of Bethlehem. One message circulating on WhatsApp in Arabic promoted a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is a form of biological warfare released by China. Another text message warns people to stay home after midnight because helicopters will be spraying disinfectants across different cities. A pharmacy near Jenin ran an online ad for a miracle drug, claiming it can cure coronavirus and malaria.
Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, who heads the WHO’s office in the Palestinian territories, said the organization is also working on a local level with the Bank of Palestine, using computer screens at their banking facilities to publish correct information, and with Paltel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, to send out text messages with important updates. Social media influencers have also been recruited to disseminate facts about the virus. For trustworthy information, said Rockenschaub, people should rely on messages put out by the government and UN agencies.
Misinformation is dangerous and can produce a false sense of security, said Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights advocate and a policy analyst at the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. Some reactions to the virus online have taken a patriotic tone, she said, reassuring people that, given the trials and tribulations Palestinians have historically endured, the coronavirus “will not defeat us.” Others, she continued, are referring to the pandemic as a test of God, telling people the virus can be staved off with prayers.
The coronavirus “has become another political issue to have an opinion on,” said Fatafta. “So, you can be sarcastic, you can disbelieve it.”
The risks of misinformation are especially high for Palestinians, added Fatafta. “In the history of colonization and occupation, we have learned not to trust political powers.” As a result, their relationship to authority is not based on a healthy social contract. “We have our intuitive distrust to authorities because we don’t believe they will act in our interest,” she explained. Recent polls show that over 40 percent of Palestinians surveyed in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip lack trust in their current leadership, while 61 percent believe President Mahmoud Abbas should resign.