Sri Lanka reported its first case of COVID-19 in early February in 2020. There was a rapid increase in the number of cases from March till May. However, health authorities were able to manage the situation and the country is now in a better position compared to many other neighboring countries.
Presently Sri Lanka has just 3,012 cases and 144 active (according to Ada Derena of 31st August) patients of COVID-19.
Sri Lanka was able to slowdown the spread of the virus but like many other countries, it is also confronted with an ‘infodemic’ which is difficult to control. This has led to a battle on two fronts: medical and information. The infodemic is getting in the way of combating the virus outbreak. Some fact-checking websites in Sri Lanka (http://www.factcheck.lk/) are monitoring and rating the validity of published content. Misleading news does impact the proper identification and treatment of the patients.
There are two kinds of sources of disinformation that in the Sri Lankan context: (i) mainstream media, which is willfully creating and spreading disinformation; and (ii) websites and social media users creating disinformation, which is widely shared by many users without any critical assessment. Disinformation creates insecurity, panic and fear amongst the public as well as casts doubts on the initiatives taken by the government to fight the outbreak of the disease. Disinformation was also created by the political environment of the country, that had an election campaign followed by a general election. The Government announced that they have identified a few individual groups that circulate false information on social media about COVID-19 and misinterpret the Health Ministry’s guidelines to the public.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories were abound and shared on mainstream and social media on different levels, like: The believe that the likelihood of a widespread virus outbreak in Sri Lanka would be low given the tropical climate of the country. The conviction that they have a strong enough immune system to fight the virus. While some also believed that the virus is only seasonal.
Sri Lanka is a popular destination for Ayurveda. But, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some Ayurvedic treatments have had negative impact on patients who had hoped to get a treatment protecting them from Covid-19. To counter the disinformation and fake news the health authorities conducted successfully awareness campaigns on the spread of the coronavirus.
Several social media and web articles painted a negative picture of the government’s efforts to control the coronavirus: They attached the use of protective masks, provided disinformation on quarantine process, and were critical of the crisis response measures of the government.
Fact-checking services in Sri Lanka are currently dealing with the disinformation related to COVID-19. However, in the current situation, the scope of fact-checkers is also limited, requiring them to prioritize news by its potential to create harm to the public and prevent the spread of the pandemic. People can verify the authenticity of any news article by referring to fact-checking websites like (http://factcheck.lk/, https://factcheck.afp.com/afp-sri-lanka, http://www.dailymirror.lk/fact-check/328). The factcheck.lk is an initiative of Verité Research, an organization with which the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom will work in the near future. However, fact checking alone cannot fight the infodemic.
The Government of Sri Lanka, while battling the pandemic on one hand, took several measures to control the situation:
· Releasing official epidemiological data to the public daily without revealing personal information of the patients.
· Arresting and taking legal actions against people who create and publish fake news and disinformation. So far, no actions were taken against the mainstream media creating a mismatch in government’s response to disinformation.
· Taking actions under the existing laws in Sri Lanka (Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 16 of 2006) since there is no dedicated law to counter disinformation.
In the long run, these actions based on fact-checking alone are not enough to counter disinformation. There should be a more integrated and holistic approach focused on digital and media literacy so that the public can identify, suspect and question disinformation themselves. It also needs journalists and media that separate information and opinion clearly, so that readers can form their own views.