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Hoaxes deter vaccination drive, efforts to curb Covid-19 in Indonesia

JAKARTA – People who get vaccinated will die in two years. Ambulances with their sirens switched on are actually unoccupied and they are meant only to scare people into staying at home.

These are among the hoaxes circulating online that have made it even harder for Indonesian authorities to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Pressure is now mounting on local governments and community leaders across the world’s fourth-most populous nation as well as on social media giant Facebook to deal with the phenomenon.

Earlier this month, on July 9, a mob threw stones at a passing ambulance in Klaten, Central Java, shattering its windshield. The driver and the patient on board arrived safely in hospital, Jakarta-based news portal Detik.com reported.

Similar incidents took place in other cities, including Yogyakarta and Solo, earlier this month, according to the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo).

“This has occurred even as officers manning the ambulances are under a lot of stress to begin with due to the long queue of patients,” Mafindo said in a statement on Wednesday (July 21).

On social media, it is a battle between those who are rational and those who are not, Mafindo chairman Septiaji Eko Nugroho told The Straits Times on Wednesday. He described Covid-19 misinformation as dangerous, as it obstructs efforts to contain the pandemic.

Indonesia has extended a partial lockdown, which was due to end on Tuesday, to Sunday as it continues to battle a record surge in Covid-19 cases caused by the more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Under the emergency curbs imposed on July 3, grocery stores and supermarkets on Java and Bali islands, which account for two-thirds of Covid-19 cases nationwide, have to limit customers to half their capacity and close by 8pm.

Public places, such as shopping malls, parks and places of worship, are closed, while eateries can only offer takeaways and deliveries. The curbs were expanded from July 12 to cover 15 regencies and cities outside the two main islands.

“These emergency curbs must be accompanied by serious efforts to suppress the channels where hoaxes are distributed. Hoaxes lead to breaches of health protocols, and opposition towards vaccines,” said Mr Septiaji, pointing out that there had been cases in which people were admitted to hospital too late and died because they did not trust the health system.

Mr Eko Juniarto, an official at Mafindo in charge of fact-checking, estimated that the number of hoaxes was 10 times the number of clarifications.

“This is a serious issue. A lot of people are more easily exposed to hoaxes, while few people get to read the clarifications,” he said.

At least one doctor has been arrested by cybercrime police, interrogated and then released after going on social media to assert that Covid-19 is a lie and that healthy people had died from “excessive medication”.

Police said Dr Lois Owien had acknowledged that her personal views were not based on sufficient research but this did not stop thousands of her followers from continuing to support her beliefs.

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Sixty per cent of the hoaxes in Indonesia are circulated on Facebook, since the country is the world’s third-largest Facebook user, behind India and the United States, Mr Septiaji told The Straits Times. Other social media were responsible for the remaining 40 per cent of the hoaxes circulating.

Mafindo has also urged villages and hospitals to step up efforts to combat misinformation about Covid-19 by regularly putting up posters containing clarifications of the most recent hoaxes. It also called on religious and community leaders to help.

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