Theme: Public Health
In 2021, Sri Lanka’s President removed then Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who publicly endorsed sorcery and magic potions to battle Covid-19, as coronavirus infections and deaths hit record highs. She also poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river after a self-styled godman told her that it would end the pandemic in the island nation of 21 million people.
Despite the demotion, she will remain in the cabinet — the president gave her the less important transport ministry.
Wanniarachchi was in intensive care in January 2021 after contracting the virus despite publicly consuming and endorsing a “magic potion” against Covid-19 made by a sorcerer.
She came under intense criticism last for understating coronavirus infections. At that time, Daily infections crossed 3,000, and with hospitals struggling to cope, even government health workers said the actual number of infections could be three times higher.
According to a report by News1st, a Sinhala daily, Health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said she is willing to take all possible steps even if it has to involve jumping into the river, to protect the country from COVID-19. Wanniarachchi made these remarks while referring to the criticism levelled against her for pouring holy water into a river recently, as the second COVID-19 wave broke out in the country. She added that the government has made decisions based on the advice given by specialists and epidemiologists.
She also attracted controversy for promoting a herbal syrup concocted by a shaman, the BBC reported. Wanniarachchi promoted that herbal syrup containing honey and nutmeg that was created by a shaman who claimed it worked as a life-long inoculation against the virus. The shaman reportedly said the recipe was given to him in a visionary dream.
Reports said that while doctors dismissed the claims made about the syrup’s effectiveness, thousands defied social restrictions and travelled to a village in central Sri Lanka to obtain the concoction. Several politicians also reportedly took the potion.
Under Pavithra Wanniarachchi’s tenure, the health ministry was criticized over its handling of the pandemic.
|Prime actors: Political actor-Former Health Minister Pavithra WanniarachchiSecondary actors: media outlets & social media||Intent: inconclusive||Pavithra Wanniarachchi endorsed sorcery and magic potions to battle Covid-19, poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river to tackle corona-virus and promoted herbal syrup stating its a life-long inoculation against the virus.Truthfulness:The content was untrue and not based on scientific evidence.Narrative: It is aligned with the disinformation narrative.||Target audience: Sri-Lankan populationPlatforms: parliament, media outlets & social media||Human rights:right to information, right to health, right to COVID-19 related health information.|
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
It was the former Health Minister who endorsed the use of magic potions and sorcery based on no scientific evidence to battle Covid-19. Even though she was removed from the post of Health Minister, she still remained in the Cabinet. The president gave her the transport ministry. She also promoted a shaman made herbal syrup which, despite being ineffective, created a frenzy among thousands who defied social restriction to obtain it. The syrup was even taken by some politicians as well.
The intention was not clear since the former health minister herself was in intensive care in January 2021 after contracting the virus. She publicly consumed and endorsed a “magic potion” against Covid-19 made by a sorcerer. She promoted the shaman made herbal syrup which was also proved ineffective. She also expressed her intention of jumping into the river to protect the country from COVID-19. The said remarks were made during parliamentary session. The news of the herbal syrup spread among thousands.
Doctors in the country have quashed claims that the herbal syrup works, but AFP news agency reports thousands have travelled to a village to obtain it. The content had harmful elements since it violated people’s right to verified and right information affecting public health. The contents were not verifiable, and it was deceptive and untrue
The target audience was the people of Sri Lanka who are vulnerable to mis/disinformation on public health. Wanniarachchi also poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river after a self-styled god-man told her it would end the pandemic in Sri Lanka, the AFP reported. She publicly disseminated the content.
The content violated right to information, right to health, right to COVID-19 related health information.
The case may be identified as incident of disinformation or misinformation as it cannot be conclusively proven there was a deliberate intention of deception.
In Sri Lanka, stereotypes, dehumanizing language use, and hate have been specifically directed towards minorities on social media since the beginning of the pandemic. A study conducted by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) between March and June 2020 found 103 instances of hate speech on social media platforms such as Facebook. The rise of hate crimes and speech incidents on social media spaces coalesces with the country’s exponential growth in internet and social media use.
Apart from targeted hate speech, Sri Lanka’s print, electronic, and social media are a fertile ground for mis and disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. State controlled and mainstream media often withhold information or downplay risk. Websites and social media platforms often spread mis/disinformation as well as misinterpretations of guidelines, without any accessible fact checking mechanism in place. Mis/disinformation in the country came even from the (ex) health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who herself endorsed a potion against COVID-19 made by a sorcerer and poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river to end the pandemic.