Coronavirus: how fake news impedes the global fight against the outbreak

From a doctored ministerial resignation letter in Iran to false claims of hotel closures in Dubai, misinformation is rife

epa08248843 Commuters wearing protective face masks ride the underground or MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) in Bangkok, Thailand, 26 February 2020. Thailand's Health Ministry is stepping up efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 after it reported three new cases of on 26 February, bringing the total number of infected people to 40. The Health Ministry is asking people to avoid unnecessary travel to 'At-risk countries' which include China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy, Iran and Japan.  EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL
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Misinformation and fake news is confounding the battle against the coronavirus, with governments and global health leaders urging the need for calm not panic.

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said "our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself, it's fear, rumours and stigma".

Rumours range from the baffling - a link between the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and the rollout of 5G - and more subtly exaggerated versions of real events.

In the UAE, the authorities urged the public to avoid spreading rumours on social media.

At the weekend, messages wrongly told that schools in Dubai were to close, purportedly in a false tweet made to look as thought it were from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) education regulator.

Fake news, unfortunately can be potentially very damaging to a brand, but luckily we now have this situation under control

In Abu Dhabi, similar rumours spread among parents that all schools were to be closed down temporarily for a “deep clean”.

Only kindergartens and nurseries were closed as a precaution. The KHDA described the school closure reports as “fake news”.

“We advise everyone to avoid sharing messages and screenshots without first verifying them,” the authority said.

In Dubai, a hotel chain complained after false reports that one of its flagship facilities was in lockdown, saying fake news had the potential to be “very damaging” to business.

A letter written on headed hotel paper from JA Lake View Hotel claimed the building was sealed off.

It was widely shared over the internet and on messaging apps, but the information was false.

The letter asked guests who felt unwell to wear red clothing around the five-star hotel and said others should wear white clothing.

Police are investigating where it came from.

"The letter in circulation stating that one of our hotels, JA Lake View Hotel... is under quarantine is completely false," Anthony Ross, chief executive of JA Resorts and Hotels, told The National.

“There are no current health issues at JA Lake View Hotel or any of the JA Resorts and Hotels properties. We are working closely with the local authorities to determine the origin of this letter.

“Fake news, unfortunately can be potentially very damaging to a brand, but luckily we now have this situation under control. Our guests and partners have been very supportive.”

Like many examples of fake news, the cases to already affect the UAE were not dissimilar to true stories.

For example, nurseries and kindergartens, but not schools, were closed from Sunday.

Schools have remained open but some activities, such as field trips, have been suspended. The fake KHDA tweet even mimicked the language used by the department in a real tweet about the new restrictions on trips and other gatherings.

Last month, UAE health officials moved to dismiss rumours that garlic would protect people against coronavirus, instead suggesting basic hygiene measures like hand washing.

Elsewhere, a fake letter attributed to Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki claimed he had tendered his resignation to President Hassan Rouhani due to the ministry's "inability to manage" the outbreak.

Mr Namaki said in a statement that the letter was "false", a claim backed up by verification tools which show it was doctored.

Even more outlandish are baseless claims that the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus is a “bioweapon”, potentially developed by the US government, which have spread on the internet.

In fact, the virus is believed by experts to have emerged from a wildlife 'wet market' in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

At a media briefing on Saturday, Abdulrahman Al Owais, the UAE Minister of Health and Prevention, said: “We hope from our professional colleagues the journalists, when posting news, to seek the news and the information from the correct official entities.”