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To COVID-19 Deniers: Are You Waiting To Get Infected First?

Liputan6.com, Jakarta - Rocky says he does not believe in COVID-19. The Balinese thinks the virus that triggers the global pandemic is only a fabrication for business interests.

He admits that he had suffered from cold, flu, and fever, which he acknowledges are similar to COVID-19 symptoms, but merely for three days. He recovered on his own without ever visiting the doctor or waiting around in the hospital. His recovery enforced his belief that the coronavirus is just a common flu.

"Whatever the basis, I don't believe in COVID-19," he exclaimed to Liputan6.com. Rocky also openly supports the musician Jerinx who questioned the origin of COVID-19. Jerinx, member of rock band Superman Is Dead, had to spend months in jail after using Instagram to slander the Indonesian Medical Association (IDI) by calling it WHO’s “lackey”.

Rocky, who works as a ridesharing driver with his motorcycle (ojek online), also rejects vaccination. He believes the vaccine is poison created by the "mastermind" of COVID-19.

When asked about why hospitals are crowded with COVID-19 patients and how the victims in Indonesia already reached tens of thousands, Rocky believes that it's all engineered, and he cites the chemtrails conspiracy theory. This theory believes that the "smoke trails" from an airplane contain toxic agents which target the people.

Rocky says he has the video. "I will show you the video later, so you will understand."

Artur, a fruit seller from Tangerang, offers a similar view. He believes COVID-19 is real, but the illness is just a common thing and not at all dangerous. He also shares criticism towards the media.

"My relative recovered in less than two weeks. The illnesses were just cold and flu, then returned to normal. Now in healthy condition. People are exaggerating. The media also likes to exaggerate," he observed.

Separately, a street vendor named Setiawan is also convinced that COVID-19 is not a dangerous disease. He often chooses not to wear a mask, and expresses regret of getting his first dose of vaccine. "Vaccination does not mean immunity," he concluded.

He further spoke about his friend who "got vaccinated three times", and yet their test result was "still reactive," and so now he feels "somewhat regretful" of getting the vaccine.

Another man, Abdul, also declines to get the vaccine. Abdul, who sells uduk rice in Lebak, Banten, prefers to keep his faith in God to protect him, and he does not believe vaccine can prevent the virus. "I only believe in The One Above (God)," he confessed.

During the writing of this report, Indonesia is on number 15 in terms of cumulative COVID cases worldwide. Currently, it's on number 14 after surpassing Poland. The number of deaths related also exceeded 72,000. There are still no signs of cases going down, while certain countries even start helping their citizens to leave Indonesia.

These days, messages of condolences are coming more often in work emails, WhatsApp, and Instagram stories. People are losing their families, friends, and co-workers.

Rafli Mirza Ananto knows the pain. He lost his parents due to COVID-19. Both of them passed away within 11 days. He and his younger sibling are now orphans.

The 20-year-old hopes nobody will have to endure the severe pain of losing both father and mother. 

"I often tell my friends that as long as you still have your parents, be good to them, keep in mind to follow the health protocols when you go out," he said.

Rafli is part of the Zoomer generation who is currently a student at Brawijaya University, Malang, East Java Province. He is willing to invite those who don't believe in COVID-19 to visit his mother's grave.

"I will take them there," he promised. "Don't believe it? There is the proof. Do you need a letter? Death certificate of the diagnosis? I will show you. Even if in the end they still refuse to believe and say this is a ‘Covidized’ case, whatever. I will have shown them the proof."

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Death by Hoax

On July 15, 2021, Helmi Indra took to Twitter to share the news about the passing of his father, who was a COVID-19 patient with diabetes. After being diagnosed with the disease, his father refused to take the prescribed medicines or visit the hospital because he was convinced by COVID-19 hoaxes on social media.

When he was finally brought to the hospital, his condition had already worsened due to oxygen problem, and he passed away in only a few days.

Information on Helmi Indra's account, @HelmiIndraRP on 15 July 2021. (Twitter/@HelmiIndraRP)

"After days of fighting, Papa lost his battle against COVID-19. So what made Papa lose? Hoax played a huge role in this besides comorbidity," he tweeted.  

In a series of tweets, Helmi told how his father became the victim of hoaxes, which circulate in WhatsApp group, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other sources. 

His father worried that he would be "Covidized" in the hospital, or that the "interaction between drugs" could jeopardize his life. He also feared that there was a pig-derived ingredient in the Chinese vaccine. 

"Papa believed those hoaxes. As a result, Papa refused to get vaccinated," said Helmi. 

Helmi himself is a young father who currently works in sales and marketing. His Twitter photo shows him playing at the beach with his family. He decided to publish the story about his father to prevent other people from believing and sharing hoax. 

The COVID-19 hoax has been circulating since the first case was announced last year in Wuhan, China. This year, there are even more hoaxes than ever. 

The Ministry of Communication and Information detected 1,735 hoaxes about COVID-19 just in January 23 to July 12 this year. They circulated on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. And those numbers are still increasing. 

COVID-19 hoaxes come in various forms: narrative, photos, and even videos. By comparison, the hoaxes in videos are larger than the photos for about three against five.

COVID-19 fake news in social media (Data: Diyah Naelufar)

 

Liputan6.com has been working to verify suspicious information in social media and WhatsApp groups. From 2020 to mid-2021, more than 50 percent of the information verified by Liputan6.com were related to COVID-19.

On average, the daily fake news about COVID-19 in the mid-2021 is twice the amount of fake news in 2020.

According to the findings by Liputan6.com Fact-Check Team, the misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 are not always about the virus itself. They also included hoaxes about biological weapons, the 5G network, big pharma, and geopolitical issues.

 

Verified fake news informations by Liputan6.com (Data: Diyah Naelufar)

The COVID-19 conspiracies appear in many parts of the world. International relations expert Prof. Aleksius Jemadu from Pelita Harapan University thinks that the spreaders of COVID-19 conspiracy theories only seek to gain benefits for themselves.

"COVID is something real. I think those (who follow conspiracy theories) want to reap benefits from these urgent situations. This always happens. Not just in COVID, but in other issues there are always conspiracy theories," he explained.

However, Aleksius does support the people to think critically in the COVID-19 pandemic. He assesses that in the international relations discipline, it is not impossible for a country to be tempted to gain benefit from the pandemic, such as through the intellectual properties of vaccines and competitions of big pharma.

Fake News and Conspiracy Theory related to COVID-19 (Liputan6.com)

 

Meanwhile in the US, a taxi driver named Brian Lee Hitchens believed COVID-19 was similar to a common flu, and that the pandemic was related to the 5G network.

His conviction was shattered after he and his wife, Erin, got COVID-19. Brian survived, but Erin did not. Now Brian spreads his messages on Facebook to convince people that COVID-19 is real and dangerous.

And the next question is: should someone get infected by COVID-19 first before believing that this is a dangerous virus?

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Psychological Aspects

It's still unknown how many people died because of COVID-19 hoaxes. The most recentresearch was published by The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in August 2020.

The result shows Iran counted most deaths because of hoaxes: 728 people died there after alcohol poisoning after believing it could cure COVID-19.

Infodemic related to COVID-19 and its impacts to the public health

 

The total of COVID-19 cases in the world already surpassed 190 million with 4 million deaths, according to the data from Coronavirus Resource Center John Hopkins University and Medicine on late Sunday, July 18 2021.

Liputan6.com spoke with experts to find out what triggered the people to underestimate the impact of COVID-19.

Professor of psychology from the University of Indonesia, Hamdi Muluk, said there are three aspects that drive people to refuse believing COVID-19. First is the cognitive aspect.

"From the cognitive aspect, not just COVID-19, there are still people who don't believe in polio. Children contracted polio, and they said it's a satanic curse. So there are always challenges through the ages, and not all people believe in science," he conveyed.

Second, Hamdi explained the emotional aspect. This aspect will touch someone when they have direct experience of getting infected, or if their closed ones got it. But as long as COVID-19 doesn't harm them, their emotion would not be affected.

Hamdi pointed to the self-service bias aspect in psychology. "So that person is too stubborn to be convinced of COVID-19. When that person or their family got infected, only then they start to believe." 

There are also emotional aspects related to religion and belief. "Religion, when it is applied to scare, will emotionally enter someone's inner self. So it's not the fault of the religion, but that religion is used to shake someone's emotion, making them become irrational about COVID-19," added Hamdi. 

The third aspect is political. These people decline to believe COVID-19 because of their political motivation to run against the government’s policy. 

"The position of the government is believing in COVID-19. The logic of opposition is simple. If the government believes it, then the opposition refuses to believe it. Right or not comes later. What is important for them is to be different from the government.” 

Hamdi suggests the public to embrace people who refuse to believe in COVID-19. One thing that can be done is by calmly engaging them in a discussion. 

"If you meet someone who does not believe in COVID-19, talk about it kindly. We present them with data and facts which make sense according to the scientific knowledge. But it can indeed be difficult at times. In a WhatsApp group, for example, it could result in conflict because of debating,” he reflected.

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The Influence of the 2019 Presidential Election

Meanwhile, Imam Prasodjo, a sociologist at University of Indonesia, thinks that someone’s attitude in believing a phenomenon or not depends on their comprehensive ability. That being said, COVID-19 can only be understood properly if the person involved has the ability to at least follow and understand matters related to medical science.

“This virus is invisible to the naked eye, and the theory behind it is not easy (to understand). An explanation to the public about this virus requires a communication effort that is no easy task, and it cannot simply be socialized because the study of virology is a very complicated thing. Not everyone can understand it,” said Imam.

With the difficulty to understand the coronavirus, it is crucial to find a proper way to explain this from credible people. This cannot be explained only by the government alone.

“So, we are experiencing a communication problem. Moreover, this is also the era of digital communication in which anyone can access information, and anyone can create news about COVID-19— that not all of which is scientifically correct.”

Because of that, the general public is presented with a lot of information that has a variety of scientific accuracy. As a result, a clutter of information is unavoidable.

Unfortunately, added Imam Prasodjo, many public figures who are trusted by the public and have access to provide information, don’t even understand or want to learn about COVID-19, scientifically or empirically.

"So when they interpret based on non-empirical science, whether it is religious science, or any science, it becomes out of sync. So there are two currents of scientific struggle. One is based on modern scientific knowledge, and the other is non-empirical knowledge. They could not meet halfway. Besides, these two sciences have their own respective audiences."

The integration of science and language in explaining the COVID-19 phenomenon must be encouraged in order to avoid fragmentation. This is because the government has been considered to be too ‘government-oriented’ in explaining COVID-19.

“Because of the political residue from the last presidential election result, there are certain groups who do not want to listen to any explanation put forward by the government, so they make their own narrative. Not all parties can accept the government kindly, whatever the explanation is about. But at the same time, the government also does not ask the community leaders to help in explaining COVID-19 according to scientific studies in their own language," said Imam.

The Government’s Ambiguous Communication

During the first emergence of the coronavirus, many statements made by the officials are considered to be downplaying the situation. For instance, the previous Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto, stated that deaths caused by influenza were higher than corona. He also challenged Harvard University and demanded proof of their research that the coronavirus had entered Indonesia.

Then, there was the statement from Minister Luhut Pandjaitan who said that the coronavirus was not strong enough to live in hot weather like in Indonesia. Syahrul Yasin Limpo, the Minister of Agriculture, even introduced the "anti-corona necklace", which became the subject of mockery on social media. 

Indonesian Political Communications Expert Gun Gun Heryanto assessed that the government should be criticized for its communication, which is often ambiguous in several respects. According to him, this pandemic should not be handled with a regular communication approach. 

"In that context, every policy issued by the government, whatever it may be, must be easily understood by the public. Don’t be vague, or become equivocal in communicating. Don’t be ambiguous,” explained Gun Gun when contacted by Liputan6.com. 

In addition, Gun Gun also mentioned the role of information in a pandemic situation. He Stressed the importance of the government to appoint who to process information behind the scene and who to convey it to the public, so that not everyone in the bureaucratic organization can say anything they want, which can cause a chaos of information. 

Chaos of information is caused by the government’s lack of understanding, perception, and the non-existence of a unified opinion or voice regarding the pandemic. In the end, the government that has been bothered with hoaxes also has to deal with this chaos of information. Therefore, Gun Gun suggested that the government maximizes a counter-narrative through influencers to handle those who tend to view COVID-19 from a conspiratorial perspective. 

In a communication approach, he hopes that the government can expand the latitude of acceptance or the acceptance zone from the public regarding the counter-narrative against hoaxes about COVID-19. 

“The formation of the majority’s opinion must start from those who can still be trusted," explained Gun Gun, who also teaches at the State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta. 

Gun Gun said that the government should increase the proportion of people who can speak up, and make sure that they are also people who can be trusted by the public. This, he said, was to empower the government's narrative in the name of public interest regarding this pandemic—which must be tackled together and not just to cater to the government's agenda. 

"But the problem is, how convincing is the government in embracing these independent groups to participate in constructing the opinion which they intend, and that also has the potential to expand the public acceptance of the orientation in resolving the handling of COVID-19 in Indonesia," he explained.

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The COVID-19 Deniers

A number of public figures voiced denials related to COVID-19. One of them is Superman Is Dead (SID) drummer, I Gede Ari Astina or who is familiarly called Jerinx.

He was active on social media, and once challenged to meet and shake hands with a COVID19 patient. Jerinx often calls the disease a conspiracy of the global elite.

Jerinx had spent time in prison for 10 months because of a controversial post he made on his social media on June 13, 2020. In that post, Jerinx claimed that the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) is a lackey of the World Health Organization (WHO). He was reported by IDI’s Bali branch for that post.

He was released on June 8, 2021. But after being released, his attitude did not change. Jerinx, who is also the husband of influencer Nora Alexandra, still would not believe the danger of COVID-19. He still insists that there is a conspiracy behind this pandemic. This 44-year-old man also does not hesitate to accuse others of getting COVID-19 endorsements. 

Later on, a woman called dr. Lois Owien went viral. Lois gave statements about COVID-19 that sparked widespread attention from netizens on social media. She spoke to Miftah's TV Youtube channel, and there was also her video interview with the famous lawyer Hotman Paris. 

In the video, Hotman asked if Lois believed in COVID-19, and Lois replied that she didn’t. Furthermore, Lois also mentioned that the patient's death was not due to COVID-19, but caused by interaction between drugs or excessive coronavirus medication. "Interaction between drugs, Sir. For example, if you open the data at a hospital, they’re giving more than six kinds of medications," said Lois.

Regarding the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals, Lois lightly said the reason was because these people were stressed, resulting in a decrease in immunity. Inevitably, her controversial statements incited wide criticism from every corner. 

Lois was later detained by the police and declared as an alleged suspect in spreading false news after making a number of controversial statements. However, after investigating, the police decided not to arrest Lois for several reasons. In one of the national online media, Lois apologized because her statement had caused a commotion. 

Drone Emprit Founder, Ismail Fahmi, conducted an analysis of COVID-denier supporters, especially regarding the account of @LsOwien. This analysis was carried out based on data collected from 5 to 11 July, 2021. 

In his analysis, Fahmi mapped the supporters of Louis’ account by combining the social network analysis (SNA) map from the @LsOWien account with the wider SNA map about the COVIDvaccine. Based on his analysis, Fahmi found that the map shows how Lois’ supporters of COVID deniers are made up of the pro-conspiracy theory group, anti-vaccine group, and the government opposition. 

"This cannot be separated from the similarity of some narratives between these groups. For example, the view of the @LsOwien account is often influenced by conspiracy theories, ranging from the dangers of 5G radiation to the global conspiracy of depopulation through vaccines," explained Fahmi to Liputan6.com.

From the DE data, @LsOwien's tweets are collected, both those that are still open and those that have been deleted. In general, her views are also heavily influenced by conspiracy theories (Source: Twitter/@ismailfahmi)

 

Meanwhile, for the same view from the anti-vaccine side, the @LsOwien account also often mentions that vaccines are actually harmful to the body, containing mercury, as well as calling medicine as toxic.

Fahmi explained that these two groups already existed even before the pandemic. This can be seen in the narratives that are often echoed by them, even though they are not directly related.

"The anti-vaccines don't always believe in conspiracy theories, but more to the fact that they don't believe in vaccines. As for the government opposition, they just really don't like the government," Fahmi elaborated.

However, he emphasized that not all of the opposition agreed with the opinion of the @LsOwien account, only some. This is because many opposition accounts agree with health workers and the media, including political activists, especially regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Furthermore, Fahmi said that some people from these three groups supported the @LsOwien narrative because they have the same source of reference.

"A figure like @LsOwien will be used by some people from the three groups to support the view of their own group," he said.

From 5-11 July, the conversation map shows two large clusters: Pro Lois with @LsOwien as a central account and contra Lois with @tirta_hudhi as the primary account. (Source: Twitter/@ismailfahmi)

Fahmi gave an example about how some people from the opposition group endorsed@LsOwien just to exploit her views to attack the government. As a result, the hashtag #PakPresidenKapanMundur (Mr. President When Will You Step Down) appeared, something that the anti-vaccine group also pushed.

He explained that this condition is problematic because the narratives built by each group are at times out of context. In the end, they just conjured up a narrative that fit their own respective views. 

This group also creates and distributes @LsOwien’s contents in the forms of writing, photos, and videos to WhatsApp groups, and they usually added extra information tailored to the views of each group.

"Once it comes to the WhatsApp groups, it became unclear as to who originally created it. Then it is read by those who don't have understanding, parents, people who are fearful. Is this true or not? From there, those who are still hesitant can become distrustful of COVID-19," he said.

This condition, according to Fahmi, then led to reports of parents or other members in the family who suddenly believe in the views of the @LsOwien account.

"These people who don't know, like parents for example, don't have time to verify. People who don't have critical-thinking culture will become victims," Fahmi warned.