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July 1, 2020

A conspiracy theory that puts doctors at risk

Top Story

July 1, 2020

ISLAMABAD: She literally spat on his face as he told her about the death of her corona-infected son. It was not for once; she spat on his face for four times. Each time she blamed him for the death of her son allegedly for the sake of dollars from abroad. She would also mock like showering dollars at the doctor.

“I had Rs40 in my pocket and the monthly salary was ten-days away when she accused me of taking dollars from abroad for killing corona patients,” said a young doctor working in Pakistan Institute of Medical Science. What was your reaction when she spat at your face? The News asked him. “I stayed quiet with my gaze lowered. It hurt both of us,” he said trying to justify the anger of a mother who had lost 16-year old son and his own limitations in saving a human life. The dollar taunt by the grieved mother was not something unheard of. What she said is a widespread conspiracy theory. Doctors administer lethal injection to coronavirus patients, according to this theory, as the amount of dollars (the government would receive from abroad) is directly proportional with the number of dead bodies. Theory’s appeal isn’t limited to common people; even elite is among its takers. The family of an MPA (died of coronavirus) still believes that he was killed through an injection.

Recently, a doctor at Nishtar Hospital Multan received a message from the son of a patient died of coronavirus. Recognize this man doctor, the message (in Urdu) reads. The picture of dead was also posted. “He’s my father. See this picture daily because he has left this world due to the injection. God willing, I will see you soon,” read the message triggering panic among health professionals. The concerned doctor subsequently reported to the hospital administration and the police.

“Sometimes, it feels like we are considered as prostitutes,” said the doctor at PIMS who faced spitting from an angry mother. Majority of us try to do our best but public trust has eroded on our profession, he continued. Added to this are conspiracy theories triggered by coronavirus. “At times, it is hard to convince people that what we are going to do is in the best interest of the patient,” he said and then explained through examples of only one week.

Hospitals tend to receive many atypical patients; we got one such a few days back. He was brought to hospital after he complained about abdominal pain. Among other tests, we suggested corona test raising eyebrows of the attendants. “We have brought him for fixing abdominal pain and you are recommending corona test,” ask the attendant. We do this test to see if the patient has it or not, the doctor responded. It is also important because we don’t have enough Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for all doctors as they are reserved for those dealing with corona patients, doctor explained. Testing is also important because we can’t keep corona patient in general ward, he said. He was tested positive.

Unconvinced, attendants decided to take back patient in protest amid warning from doctor that condition of patient is highly critical. As doctor returned to the ward, he found patient gone. Next day, he was brought back and his condition worsened. After a few hours, he died. His attendants started smashing windows in protest faulting doctors for converting a patient of abdominal pain into a patient of coronavirus. Asked what’s the impact of conspiracy theories like this “zehr wala teeka (lethal injection).”

A doctor in Lahore said the number of patients coming to medical emergency has decreased. However, the doctor at PIMS (Islamabad) said people though come, they tend to return once they are told they are likely to have corona and must be tested and admitted first.

Babar Amin, a senior doctor at a district hospital Sheikhupura, shared a social media post describing how a family insisted to have its patient at home; his shortness of breathing due to corona notwithstanding. The family firmly told Babar that they wanted to keep patients at home due to some reasons; belief on lethal injection theory was one of them. “…myths like ‘zehr ka teeka’ (lethal injection) are so harmful and are [a leading caused behind the] worsening in COVID-19 outcomes. We are losing a lot of precious lives due to this misinformation. Our hospitals and health facilities are treating just a small fraction of COVID-19 patients, majority staying away and dying home due to misinformation which could have been easily cleared.”