“I have heard that people who have a cough and cold are being taken away. God only knows where they take them. People are saying, they take them to Delhi to give them medicines, but who knows if they give them medicines or beat them?” Dayaram, a resident of Kanchanpur village in Uttar Pradesh said.

Confusion was palpable in his voice as he recounted the rumours he had heard at the local chauraha about individuals being quarantined to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Some people say they are taking the elderly away and beating them. Others are saying they are picking up people who have a cough and cold as well. Who do I listen to?” he said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading rapidly in India, 606 people have tested positive so far, and 10 deaths have been recorded in the country. As migrant workers in Mumbai and Delhi return to their villages, heightening fears of coronavirus reaching rural India, subsequently causing a spike in the number of cases and subsuming the country’s healthcare system.

Along with the constant barrage of information coming in daily, the atmosphere is also rife with rising anxiety, widespread rumour-mongering and fake news. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, awareness seems to be limited, while rumours regarding the cause and resulting spread of COVID-19 have been flying.

“I’ve just heard everyone saying ‘Corona Corona’, but I don't know much about it,” Dayaram said. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has categorically stated there is no specific medicine to prevent or treat the new coronavirus, Dayaram stated, “I have heard the medicine has been found for this but I haven't come across it in any store.”

“In the village they are saying, there is a Corona disease that is happening. What we hear on the roads, that is what we go and tell people in the villages too,” he told The Citizen.

Nazir of Kateya village said all the information he has about coronavirus is based on what he has heard from others. “I have only heard about coronavirus. It is a disaster. Lots of people are dying in Lucknow, in Delhi. I don’t know how they are dying, though,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, calling for a Janta Curfew on March 22, reportedly sparked its own set of rumours. Shyam (name changed) of Vasalatpur village told The Citizen, “While India was on lockdown, people in the villages were saying that Bharat sarkar will spray medicine from above that will kill the virus. That is why we have been told to stay at home.” He clarified that this information had not been received through messages or Whatsapp forwards but had spread through word-of-mouth.

There was yet another explanation for the curfew on Sunday. Dayaram explained, “People are saying something will fall from the sky. They are saying no one will be left, everything will be destroyed. Some told me medicines are being sprayed while others claim all beings will be killed.”

In fact, the news of an asteroid reportedly flying by Earth has scared the residents of nearby villages. NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) reported that on March 21 and 22, the latter being the day of the Janta Curfew, as many as four asteroids would approach Earth. Recently, CNEOS reported that a “potentially hazardous” asteroid will fly by Earth in April as well.

Shyam stated that even though COVID-19 requires one to maintain a distance from others, people in the villages are unaware of these precautionary measures. Instead, there is a marked indifference prevailing in certain villages. “People in the village are saying, we will see what happens. If god decides to spare us or take our lives, it is up to him. They are saying it is nothing.”

For a region that battles Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) annually (2043 cases of JE in 14 districts of eastern UP were reported in 2018, as per Economic Times), perhaps COVID-19—with its flu-like symptoms—does not seem to be much of a threat. An asteroid, on the other hand—its extra-terrestrial nature coupled with the rumours of it potentially destroying one’s homes, fields and livelihoods—is reportedly a matter of greater concern.

With his son in Lucknow, Shyam also expressed his confusion over whether he should call him back home or not. “Anyway how will he come now, trains have been stopped,” he said.

Meanwhile, Vichardas of Hainsehiya village, confusing coronavirus with an asteroid, stated, “People are saying Corona is bigger than the Himalaya mountains and is moving above Earth. It is moving in the air. If it reaches Earth, then there might be earthquakes.” However, he corrected himself almost immediately, stating that people are falling ill from the virus that “started from China”.

“The illness occurs due to small insects that get into your body without you knowing. There is no way to prevent it,” he said. Hashim from Sekhuiya village told The Citizen that the source of this information is a video that has been circulating on WhatsApp.

“In the village, there are a lot of rumours spreading. They are saying the virus is in chicken, meat, eggs, so one should not buy any of these,” Hashim said. He further stated that around March 11, the price of chicken fell drastically to Rs. 10 per kg.

“I had bought a chicken for Rs. 10 but my wife refused to cook it. Some people are still eating but most have stopped consuming chicken completely,” he said. Fake news, circulated through WhatsApp messages, linking the spread of COVID-19 to consumption of chicken caused the poultry industry of India to suffer massive losses. Sales reportedly fell by nearly 80% while the Union Minister of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, Giriraj Singh, reportedly pegged the losses to the industry at Rs. 1,500-2,000 crore per day.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) also issued a statement to dispel the rumours, saying poultry has not been found to be involved in transmission of COVID-19 and can be considered safe to consume. However, these words fell on deaf ears.

Hashim further stated that the Pradhan (village head) had not told the residents of his village about COVID-19 or how to check the spread. Nazir and Vichardas reiterated the same. “In my village, I haven’t heard of anyone coming and telling the people anything,” Nazir claimed.

On the other hand, Dayaram stated that the members of the Gram Panchayat hear about this illness from the Pradhan and then come and tell the villagers. He further recalled that all shops were shut at 3 pm on March 23 by the police. Only a grocery and vegetable stall were allowed to operate. In certain areas, announcements are also reportedly being made, requesting people to stay at home.

However, in the alleged absence of awareness campaigns, individuals are resorting to the mass information available on the Internet. Of course, there is no dearth of WhatsApp forwards that claim to answer all questions—even those no one seems to be asking.

Shyam explained that people in villages are getting their information through mobile phones and then informing their family members and neighbours while at chaurahas, rumours are spreading through word-of-mouth. “Televisions are present in every village. Everyone is watching. Everyone has mobiles nowadays too, that is where all this information is coming from,” Vichardas told The Citizen.

Sometimes, this rapid spread of information proves significant in creating awareness as many now know they are to wash their hands regularly, cover their faces upon stepping out of the house and keep a minimum distance of 1 metre from others.

However, more often than not, unverified information morphs into rumours which further serve to create panic among the local population.

Self-isolation, the prescribed precautionary measure to prevent rapid spread of COVID-19 is reportedly proving difficult for many living in villages.

“On Sunday, during janta curfew, when there was an order to clap and ring bells from your homes, the tehsildar was taking selfies and getting his pictures clicked with everyone on ground,” Ramesh (name changed) told The Citizen.

He further stated that in a nearby township, the state bank was taking precautionary measures and allowing only two people to enter at a time. “They would make them wash their hands and make them use sanitizer as well. However, right outside the bank, there was a large crowd and the people were standing in close contact,” Ramesh said.

Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a lockdown for 21 days, Vichardas, who owns a cycle shop, expressed concern over the losses he would incur, stating, “Till when will the labourers, the poor and the farmers keep sitting at home? They will have to go to the fields to work.”