COVID-19: An unverified viral post threw this village into chaos

COVID-19: An unverified viral post threw this village into chaos

COVID-19: An unverified viral post threw this village into chaos

In Rajasthan’s Sikar district, where coronavirus cases are surging, one village was held ransom to rumours fuelled by the media.

Jaipur: Earlier this month, Kheerwa village of Rajasthan’s Sikar district shot to infamy after it witnessed 24 deaths in as many days. Media reports attributed these deaths to COVID-19, claiming that the spread started after a person who died of the coronavirus was brought here from Gujarat on April 21 and buried without proper protocol. The body was apparently brought in a plastic bag which was removed before the burial, and in the process, many people had come in contact with it. 

But a rudimentary investigation into the story showed that this was untrue and the villagers were needlessly subjected to distress and ostracization. 

The deceased, thought to be patient zero, actually died of a cardiac arrest and not COVID-19. This has been confirmed by the village leaders, local health officials and the deceased man’s family, all of whom were contacted by 101Reporters

Mohammad Aziz, who was running a business in Gujarat, had previously been infected with the virus but had been completely cured before his sudden heart attack. 

Sub-Divisional Officer, Kulraj Meena, confirmed that they did not receive any information regarding the body that had been brought from Gujarat being that of a COVID-19 patient. The media should have checked with us, he said, and should have acted only after knowing the truth but that did not happen in this case. “The media should have waited for our conclusion.” 

Flashpoint

The village came to public attention after a viral Facebook post by Rajasthan Congress State President and Education minister, Govind Singh Dotasara.

Kheerwa village falls under the Dotasara's assembly constituency of Laxmangarh. In his post, he wrote that the entire village was in danger because of the dead body that was brought from Gujarat. Many mourners touched the body leading to a spread of infection, he said. He expressed sadness that more than 20 people from the village had lost their lives and many were infected. This post was later removed after protests by people from the village. The minister clarified later that he deleted the post after confirmation from the local administration that the body was not of a Covid victim.

But it was too late. The media picked up the news based on this Facebook post. According to the stakeholders, no media persons approached them for comments or confirmation. The facts on the ground had become irrelevant in the social media storm. Following this, health officials took samples from the people in the village and sanitised the entire area so that the infection could be contained.

Health officials embarked on an aggressive testing drive in the village in the aftermath of the viral news. (Picture sourced by Suresh Alakhpura)

Aziz’s immediate family members were tested and none of them turned up Covid-positive. The funeral took place according to government-issued guidelines, according to the family. There were not many people who attended.

None of the others involved in his funeral or those who accompanied the body from Gujarat or buried the body was found to be Covid positive, according to the brother of the deceased, Riyaz Khan. “I was involved in all the funeral activities and I tested negative. We also got our entire family tested, all of whose results were negative. All our family members are healthy. But no one from the media spoke to us before running this false news about us."

"The village sarpanch, Rashida Bano, also sympathised with us, saying that the media should not have printed such news without speaking to us first. This is the wrong way of reporting news and the feelings of our villagers have been played with," he said.

Some media reports quote ‘village sarpanch Hakim Ali’ as saying the number of deaths was unusual and needs to be investigated. Ali, who is actually the husband of Sarpanch Bano, maintains that he didn’t speak to any media persons.

The new normal

According to medical officials, the rate of infection in the village is actually less compared to that in other villages. After the viral news, almost 400 samples were collected from this village till May 10 (the village has a population of 4,500), out of which only 50 people were found to be Covid positive, i.e around 12%. In other villages in Rajasthan, this number is as high as 50%. In the Sikar district itself, the infection rate in villages is around 40%.

All but one of the dead in the village were elderly people who suffered from comorbidities and only five of these deaths have been linked to COVID-19. Out of the 24 deaths that occurred in the village between April 15 and May 10, 16 were women but only two of these women died due to the virus. 

The brother of the deceased (centre) explains no one from the media contacted them to get comments or confirmation about the events. (Picture sourced by Suresh Alakhpura)

But despite this, the entire village was put on the dock, just based on a viral post, and this has left its residents incensed with the government and, particularly, the media. Javed Khan, a resident of the village, says that they are not even able to get e-commerce deliveries in the village after the news. “I tried to order online from Flipkart but because my village is considered a COVID-19 hotspot, orders cannot be placed here. I will have to go to the neighbouring village to collect it,” he said. 

The dynamics between the residents of this Muslim-majority village with its neighbours have also worsened. The prevailing opinion among villagers here is that these rumours were communally motivated and spread in order to discredit them and stir up sentiments in a manner similar to the Tablighi Jamaat coverage last year. It was simply to distract from the public healthcare mismanagement happening across the country, they feel. 

Since the incident, the local madrasa in the village has been turned into a Covid care centre, with the full support of the residents.

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