The social media contagion

Bhabindra Ghimire was admitted to Teku Hospital when his oxygen levels dropped after testing positive for Covid-19 in April. With nothing to do in isolation, Ghimire took to Facebook to pass the time.

But his social media feed was inundated with news of people dying from the virus, photos of bodies being cremated, and posts paying tributes to loved ones lost to the contagion. Ghimire’s anxiety level rose, and his recovery suffered.

“The death notices pouring in on social media and the terrifying pictures of cremations were making me really anxious,” says Ghimire. “I tried and failed to stop myself from looking at my phone, and there were no friends or relatives allowed to visit. I started getting a panic attack, and was certain my days were also numbered.”

Ghimire did finally recover, but he has a word of advice to others who have tested positive, are in isolation at home or hospital: “I wished I had come across more stories about how patients were spending their time in isolation, and how people had overcome the disease. But such stories are few and far between.”

Till 17 May, Nepal had recorded 464,218 confirmed cases of Covid-19 from 2.7 million PCR tests, and 345,523 have recovered from the virus. With the number of dead crossing 5,000, the fatality rate among infected people is a little above 1.3%. 

Of the active cases, 94% are in home isolation. And with almost all of Nepal under full or partial lockdown, social media has become a way to spend their time for not just people who are infected, but for most Nepalis as they stay indoors. 

Recent surveys have shown that up to 96% have mobile phones, of which more than 60% are smartphones, and a quarter of all Nepalis say they use the Internet every day. Of those with smartphones, nearly 90% are on Facebook, and the number of Nepalis with Facebook accounts is now about 9 million. 

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Many Covid-19 patients interviewed for this report say that they have been adversely impacted by the overwhelmingly negative Covid-related content on mainstream and social media.

Indeed, psychologists and physicians have said that keeping a positive mental attitude is important in recovery, and they prescribe lowering the diet of media consumption. Covid-related content on social media is harmful not only to those infected but also to families, loved ones, and caretakers. 

A woman taking care of her father and grandmother in Kathmandu who were hospitalised with Covid-19 used social media to occupy her time in hospital. However, the Covid-related posts shared on her timeline made her anxious and fearful. 

“It is in our nature to be more drawn to negative news,” she says, “but when you find yourself in the middle of the very crisis everyone is talking about, you realise how harrowing it really is.”

Ramu Ghimire of Butwal has not been on social media since he tested positive for the virus, and has been seeking out positive content available on the internet. “Your first priority has to be your own recovery. Why pay attention to what is happening in the rest of the world?” 

Rinan Pokhrel is in isolation with his entire family in Bhaktapur after becoming infected. “Everyone in the family has tested positive, so we spend our time together, talking to each other,” he says. “More than 98 percent of those who become infected recover from the disease, but the media only chooses to focus on those who die and keep showing funeral pyres.” 

Psychiatrist Ritesh Thapa has been counselling people via tele-consultations during the pandemic, and says: “I have seen patients who are well on the road to recovery who become anxious and think they are going to die after seeing news of other Covid patients dying. They expressed fears of dying from the virus after they saw pictures of mass cremations in India circulating on social media.”

Thapa suggests that all Nepalis limit their social media consumption, and patients in isolation not seek Covid-related updates constantly. 

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He notes that mainstream media, especially television, also needs to be more responsible and careful about the kind of news it puts out during this crisis. He adds that publishing disturbing news and images of the dead to increase their ratings and circulation will only exacerbate the anxiety that people are already experiencing. 

Jagannath Lamichhane, activist and presenter of the interactive YouTube Channel ‘Juggernaut Mindset’, emphasises the need to stay away from fake news and misinformation during the pandemic. “It is important to get only necessary updates from a few trusted news sources, and stay away from social media altogether.”

Indeed, the worst affected are Covid-19 patients in hospital who cannot see visitors, and turn to social media on their phones only to see posts on Facebook about their own friends and relatives dying.

Cheena Thapa, a journalist in Biratnagar, took a break from social media after testing positive for the virus at the end of April, only going online a week later to update those close to her about her health. Thapa says she wished she had found more positive stories to see and read as she recovered.

Butuwal-based journalist D R Ghimire has been isolating at home after he tested positive for Covid. Ghimire understood when in isolation how negative news added to an already stressful environment. 

“After having been a journalist for three decades, I now realise how feel-good stories add value and positive energy to our lives at times like this,” he added.

“It is natural for people to panic at times like this, but all this negative news just spread more fear,” the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) notes in its publication ‘Things to be considered while disseminating news regarding the second wave of Covid-19’. “Let us try to understand the facts about the infection, spread awareness about prevention measures, and let everyone know that early diagnosis and treatment can save lives.”

Mukesh Pokhrel is a reporter for Himal Khabarpatrika and Nepali Times, and wrote last year about how negative news in the media affected him during his recovery.

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