Coronavirus: Idlib residents bombarded by anti-vaccination messages

Misinformation is the new weapon of death in Syria's rebel-held north-west

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Infertility, altered DNA and depopulation. These are just some of the so-called consequences of taking any of the new Covid-19 vaccines being launched around the world, at least according to the barrage of fake news circulating in north-west Syria that doctors said will lead to catastrophic consequences if swift action is not taken.

Several doctors, humanitarian and aid workers in north-west Syria told The National that in Syria's last rebel-held area even convincing people that the virus is real is a daily struggle.

“People who have seen their children’s remains and their homes destroyed find it hard to believe in a virus they can’t see,” said Dr Mohammad Salem, head of the vaccination programme at the Assistance Co-ordination Unit, a Syrian opposition NGO that is one of the few credible sources of data on the coronavirus situation in north-west Syria.

Baseless claims peddled by public figures with considerable online followings or widely shared walls-of-text riddled with unresearched or inaccurate allegations are all contributing to widespread disregard of the virus, which has so far claimed the lives of 1.6 million people globally.

One self-proclaimed independent political researcher, who is verified on Twitter, told his 98,000 followers that if the virus does not kill them, a vaccine surely would.

A long-form, detailed explanation forwarded "many times" on WhatsApp, and received by The National from several unrelated sources around Idlib, tells of a "leaked audio recording of a US intelligence official" who reveals a plan to depopulate the Earth.

The endeavour, according to the unsubstantiated message, failed with the pandemic but would certainly succeed through a fake inoculation.

Being a closed network, it is hard to gauge how far WhatsApp messages are spread, but those who received it said it was sent to them from several contacts, sometimes repeatedly. WhatsApp is also the tool of choice for many NGOs and medical workers who use it for day-to-day updates and disseminating public health announcements.

UN head Antonio Guterres said an “infodemic” could plague the world with fake and misleading information in tandem with the coronavirus.

The WHO started an anti-misinformation campaign called "Pause. Take care before you share", which attempts to dispel some of the rumours and myths and prompts people to verify the information that they are spreading.

“We are not just battling the virus,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in August.

“We are also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”

The WHO said it is working with 50 social media platforms including TikTok, WhatsApp and YouTube to ensure that credible, verified content is given priority and made more visible in searches.

But many in Idlib, where many civilians have been displaced several times over, are disillusioned with aid groups they see as doing too little to halt the atrocities of the last decade of war or to help those affected.

"Many people in north-west Syria don't know WHO or Unicef, they just know them as the UN and view them as 'the people who haven't helped us' despite all the efforts that the UN has done in this area. But frontline workers are trusted, so it's up to them to convince people of certain truths about the virus and the vaccine," Dr Salem told The National.

Local health teams say this disbelief needs to be overcome before a vaccine is available otherwise they worry people will just opt out, especially with the absence of mechanisms to mandate the vaccine, and the virus would continue to spread and kill.

“We have a team in place to inoculate 900,000 people in Syria’s north-west over two stages. That’s 20 per cent of the population there with a focus on frontline and humanitarian workers, people over the age of 60 and those with special and chronic illnesses between 20 and59 years old,” Dr Salem said.

But in the five months between the virus first being detected in Middle East and being found in Syria, the fake news had already settled into public consciousness.

“During that time, people made up several beliefs about it: that it does not exist; that Muslims couldn’t get it; that they have already been through so much and would not be impacted by it,” he said.

To combat the slew of falsehoods in Idlib, the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, is working with the coronavirus task force, international and local teams to come up with effective strategies to dispel common fears, rumours and misconceptions against vaccines, although a fool-proof plan is yet to be devised.

A side effect of irresponsible social media consumption globally, fake news could have deadly consequences. This year, hundreds in Iran died from methanol poisoning after social media rumours caused people to wrongly believe it would prevent the virus.

In north-west Syria, the anti-vax movement there could have the same effect.

- Additional reporting by Zouhir Al Shimale