When Satyaki Mitra’s father developed a mild fever in mid-March, the graduate student in Philadelphia wasn’t especially worried. He told his 57-year-old father, living in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, to get tested for the new coronavirus.
The initial test came back negative, but Samir Kumar Mitra’s condition steadily worsened.
Then early last week, two days after testing positive for the virus, Samir died, plunging his family into grief and triggering a public backlash that has left his 27-year-old son stunned.
On a Kolkata street, crowds battled with police for hours to stop Samir’s cremation, fearing it would spread the coronavirus and endanger lives.
On Facebook, users left abusive messages on Samir’s account, accusing him of meeting with Satyaki and his American wife and bringing the deadly virus to Kolkata, a sprawling city of 4.5 million people.
The case underscores how vitriol and disinformation can fan paranoia and even violence in a country already reeling from the worst communal riots in years between Muslims and Hindus — partly whipped up by fake news.
The entire population is under a 21-day lockdown and so far the number of cases and deaths related to the coronavirus have been small compared with many other large countries.
But experts and some officials are concerned they could spike.
Satyaki and his wife have been targeted on social media, he said, and his mother and grandmothers took shelter at a hospital because they were too scared to return to their home.
“I can’t understand how people can be so hateful,” Satyaki told Reuters from the United States. He was unable to return for his father’s last rites, as restrictions in the wake of the pandemic made the journey impossible.
Lists circulate online
On March 20, India’s federal government issued an advisory to social media companies to clamp down on the circulation of false information and unverified data on the outbreak, and deployed its own officials to debunk fake news.
Two independent Indian fact-checkers told Reuters they had seen a sharp increase in misinformation and fake news on the coronavirus across platforms since the outbreak was first detected in India.
Rajneil Kamath, publisher of Newschecker, said the increase mirrored misinformation typically seen during major political events, including a flood of queries in regional Indian languages.
“Everybody is just forwarding things and asking: is this true?” he said.
People are also using online platforms to identify those who have recently returned from locations considered high-risk or who may have come into contact with people with the disease.
Authorities in the southern state of Karnataka posted lists of quarantined people across several districts online, which were shared on local WhatsApp groups.
The lists, complete with addresses, have been used to create at least one website where users can put in their zip code to check if anyone is quarantined nearby.
In response to questions from Reuters, WhatsApp and Facebook said they were working to connect people directly with public health officials.
India has 1,071 cases of the coronavirus of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on March 30.
Samir was the first confirmed coronavirus patient to die in the state of West Bengal, and one of 19 killed by the disease so far in India.
Indian health authorities have said the virus remains largely restricted to those who travelled to affected areas and others who came into direct contact with them, but experts have warned the spread may be wider.
According to one projection, more than 100,000 Indians could be infected with the disease by mid-May, putting India’s creaky health system under severe strain.
While Facebook and WhatsApp messages alleged that Samir had travelled to Europe’s coronavirus epicenter Italy, or members of his family had visited from there, Satyaki and a colleague of his father’s denied the deceased had gone abroad.
In separate interviews, both said Samir had travelled to central India to attend a wedding in early March and returned to Kolkata by train before falling ill.
“He didn’t come into contact with anyone that I know who had travelled abroad,” Satyaki said, adding he was always in close touch with his parents.
Ajoy Chakraborty, director of West Bengal’s health services, said it was still unclear how Samir contracted the virus.
“The case is under intense investigation,” Chakraborty said.
Samir, a lifelong employee of Indian Railways, did not suffer from any serious ailments, according to his son.
Less than a week after his birthday on March 8, Samir came down with a fever and cough, and visited a local doctor. Within days, he had to be hospitalized and put on a ventilator, Satyaki said. He was being treated for a bacterial pneumonia.
“On the 21st, my mother called and informed me he had COVID. The tests had come back positive,” he said, referring to COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus. “I was absolutely shattered.”
Cremation and chaos
Following Samir’s death on March 23, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee instructed officials to ensure Samir was safely and quickly cremated.
“The virus should not escape,” she said, in a video uploaded by a local Bengali news channel.
By the time paperwork was completed and the body was taken to a riverside crematorium, local residents had surrounded the hearse, said two police officers, who asked not to be named.
A crowd of around a hundred people demanded the body be taken elsewhere, fearing Samir’s cremation would contaminate the area, one of the officers said.
“The mob grew in numbers and turned aggressive,” the officer said.
Police called in reinforcements and baton-charged the crowd, before cremating Samir’s remains around midnight.
The backlash in Kolkata may not be an anomaly. News reports have emerged across India of mobs harassing people they suspect of carrying the virus, including doctors and air crew.
Some healthcare workers in rental accommodation have been forcefully evicted by their landlords over infection fears, a doctor’s association said this week.
A day after India went into lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to citizens to stop harassing essential service workers.
“This is not done,” Modi said in a speech. “We should help those who are serving us.”
‘They should be shot dead’
Even as his father lay on his death bed, rumors were circulating on social media, Satyaki said.
In a WhatsApp forward received by several Kolkata residents, a message posted below a picture of Samir, his wife, son and daughter-in-law, read: “The son and Italian daughter-in-law had come to India recently. What a gift they got for the father!”
The only child of middle-class Indian parents, Satyaki said he hadn’t been back home since July last year.
“I was going to lose my father and on top of that people were just trying to vilify me and my wife,” Satyaki said, adding he felt helpless knowing there was no way he could go back home.
On Samir’s Facebook profile, a message posted below a photo of him and his family said: “It’s because of people like him that the coronavirus has come to us. They should be shot dead.”