The first COVID-19-related online misinformation in Bangladesh was a religious one that claimed that eating Thankuni (Asian pennywort) three times a day uttering Bismillah (in the name of Allah) would be a protection from COVID-19 infection.
This misinformation went viral instantly through Facebook and YouTube, and many believers started searching their surroundings for the mentioned plant. Bangladesh saw a spike in sale of Asiatic pennywort (locally known as Thankuni pata). Thankuni pata (Centella asiatica), a herbal leaf believed to prevent COVID-19, became popular at the beginning of the lockdown.
According to a report by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, in 2021 there was a huge demand for this herb during the lockdown. People started collecting and buying it from different parts of the city at high rates. One of them said, “One day [at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh] I found that people in the slum were rushing to collect thankuni leaves. When I reached home, my mother told me that she collected a few leaves for BDT 30, and she fed me some of the leaves to prevent Coronavirus.”
Photo: A YouTube video of local rural people of Barishal seraching for Thankuni Pata at 2/3 am at night after the information went viral.
Rumors spread over the consumption of ‘Thankuni Pata’ after a man dreamt that eating three leaves of ‘Thankuni Pata’ during Fazr Azan (morning prayer) would result in recovery from Corona virus at Santhia, Pabna.
Photo: A Facebook post stating- “A certain pir has dreamt that covid will be prevented if leaves of Asian pennywort is eaten after prayer. Do you believe in such dream? Let us know in the comments.”
|Prime Actor:A man at at Santhia, Pabna dreamt that eating three leaves of ‘Thankuni Pata’ during Fazr Azan (morning prayer) would result in recovery from Corona virus.|
Secondary Actors:Social media platforms: Facebook and YouTube along with local village people.
|Transparency: The actors were not hiding or disguising their identity or actions.|
Intent: The people were mostly manipulated into believing about the content.
|A man dreamt that consumption of ‘Thankuni Pata’ will cure coronavirus.|
Harm: The content can prevent people from taking vaccines and appropriate remedies for Coronavirus.
Truthfulness: The content was not based on scientific evidence and it was deceptive.
Narrative(s): The content is aligned with the disinformation narrative.
|Audience:People in general who are gullible and easily deceived into believing such content.|
Platform: Through village people, social media: Facebook, YouTube.
|Public Health:The contents mislead society and individuals regarding health and medical safety.|
Human Rights:Right to information, right to health, right to COVID-19 related health information.
ABCDE Framework Analysis:
According to a study done by Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka, the information that consumption of ‘Thankuni Pata’ will cure coronavirus started when a man dreamt of it at Santhia, Pabna (a city of Pabna District, Bangladesh).
Later on, the content went viral through Facebook and YouTube. The Southern districts of Barishal, Patuakhali and Borguna had shown public frenzy of collecting the leaves of the plant in the middle of the night after the breakout of the rumor.
Many have given posts in social media justifying its fruitful side. Miking has been done in the mosques on behalf of eating thankuni leaves.
On the night of March 17, 2020, many people ate thankuni leaves in Kotalipara Upazila in the faith that they would not be infected with coronavirus disease. In his facebook post, Bachchu Dewan of Goalong Village in Kotalipara urged all to eat thankuni leaves. Shipon Taj of Sonatia Village said, “At late night of Tuesday, an announcement from a local mosque suggested taking three thankuni leaves. I have eaten three leaves after hearing it.”
Housewife Runa Begum of Kurpala Village said, “We all have taken thankuni leaves.” On the other hand, Char Monai Pir was quoted as saying, “I came to know in dream that by eating three leaves with salt can check coronavirus attack.”
In different areas of Kashiani Upazila, men and women started searching out thankuni leaves with lights at midnight. After collecting leaves at night, many have taken thankuni leaves.
The intent of the actors instigating the information about Thankuni Pata remains unclear. However, the information had no scientific basis or proof of effectiveness. It was disseminated first by the local people of Barishal, Patuakhali and Borguna and then through You tube and Facebook.
Even though Thankuni Pata has medicinal properties against certain skin diseases, diarrhea and a few others. It has been tested to be effective against Covid-19. Although this herbaceous plant has medicinal properties, it is not a proven cure for Coronavirus.
Kashiani Upazila Health and Family Planning Officer Md Abdul Qayum Talukder said there is no basis in health science that viral diseases can be cured by taking thankuni leaves. Gopalganj Civil Surgeon Niaz Mohammed termed it as a rumour and requested all to follow the suggestion of the Health Department.
Hence, the content shared was not verified and untrue.
The target audience was people in General, especially those vulnerable to believing misleading content. Even though Thankuni Pata is not harmful in itself, the incorrect information prevents people from resorting to right treatment. Youtube and Facebook were used to disseminate the content on a wide scale without any verification to its truth.
The contents threaten society and individuals’ health and medical safety by disseminating misleading, untrue and deceptive cure/treatment related content. It also violates right to information, right to health, and right to COVID-19 related health information.
The Case has been identified as incident of mis/disinformation because the content shows evidence of deliberately deceptive behaviour by people having no scientific or evidentiary value to mislead people and prevent them from taking proper cure or treatment against coronavirus.
It is a very common tendency for the people of Bangladesh that they easily share unvaried news with their peers without any critical evaluation in just using one-click plugins such as Facebook’s Share button. In Bangladeshi context, disinformation are popularly circulated by the people irrespective of gender, class, educational qualification, profession and even political stance.
Not all COVID-19 related rumors have generated social tension. However, there are some critical rumors which instigate both violent and non-violent social tensions. Hence, it is important to uproot all disinformation and misinformation alike. The lack of access to right information on public health can lead to violent consequences.