When N.H.N., returned home on a flight from London to Hanoi in March, little did she imagine the notoriety that lay in store for her.
On March 7, after she was diagnosed with Covid-19 and became “Patient 17”, the first case in Hanoi, her life became a hot topic of public discussion, with misinformation flying around.
Many attacked and abused her on Instagram, slamming her for not reporting her travel history correctly to local authorities.
Netizens began to dig deep into her personal details and float rumors about her travels, saying she had attended a fashion event in Hanoi before her quarantine.
Some people posted photos of a woman who looked like N. shopping in a mall, sparking panic.
One posted a picture of someone looking like her walking on Hanoi’s Ta Hien beer street and said “N. also visited her boyfriend in a luxury apartment.”
“Her rich father is the director of a steel company and she had traveled to many places in Hanoi before going into quarantine,” some said.
With rumors and photos spreading at lightning speed, panicked citizens began to flock to supermarkets and stores to buy and stock up on food.
“Patient 17” in the hospital for Covid-19 treatment, March 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of National Hospital Of Tropical Diseases.
N. has not been alone in her plight. In the last six months, when Vietnam was battling the pandemic and making intense efforts to trace and isolate infected people and those who had come into close contact with carriers, several people had personal information disclosed and online and badmouthed.
With their names not revealed by the authorities, but with information like their location, flight numbers and employers known, they quickly become targets for Internet users.
N.Q.T, an economics professor who sat next to N. on the flight to Hanoi, was also infected and became “Patient 21”, and rumormongers began to do their thing.
When T.’s travel itinerary was disclosed, including a visit to a fancy apartment tower in Thanh Xuan District, they claimed he had a secret lover and child living there, and they too were infected.
“Luxurious life of Patient 21,” “Patient 21 and his scandalous life revealed,” were how some headlined the rumors in their Facebook posts.
Many Covid-19 patients said the barbs on the Internet affected them severely.
On August 31, T.T.S, 33, of Hanoi’s Tay Ho District was discharged from hospital after two weeks of treatment for Covid-19.
When it was revealed earlier she, “Patient 979”, had been to seven parties in nine days, “terrible” and “superspreader” were among the epithets netizens used.
Some even said she should get the death penalty.
She said she had quarantined herself and scrupulously followed authorities’ instructions after returning from Da Nang, the Covid-19 hotspot.
Many Covid-19 patients have had to fight not just the disease but also vicious rumors and abuse online. Illustration photo by Shutterstock/MRChalee.
Many patients were insulted even by friends and acquaintances.
H.T.T. of Hanoi, “Patient 196”, recalled her three-month battle against the novel coronavirus, but said misinformation and bullying on the Internet was one of the worst aspects of it.
When her husband, who works at Truong Sinh Company which provides food and logistics services to several hospitals in Hanoi, including Bach Mai Hospital, a former Covid-19 epicenter, contracted the virus in March, T. was also infected.
The couple had at first tested negative but still T. decided to isolate herself.
Then, when she was in hospital, her colleagues accused her of being reckless and not thinking about her community.
They also spread rumors she had a paramour in Truong Sinh Company and was infected by him, and that she worked secretly for the logistics company to add to her income as a nurse and accidentally contracted the deadly virus.
“Please give me sleeping pills; I cannot sleep,” T. told doctors on several occasions after reading the insults on the Internet. At home, her shocked mother saw her blood pressure shoot up.
With Vietnam having nearly 70 million Internet users and 65 million active social media users, fighting fake news on social media is a challenge for.
According to the Supreme People’s Procuracy, 700 people were found spreading fake news related to the pandemic in February and March, and 300 were fined.
The Hanoi police earlier said they would begin criminal investigations into rumors about the pandemic people spread on social media to generate likes, views and shares.
Not a single person has faced criminal charges so far though many have been fined VND10-15 million ($427- 641).
A woman who said N.H.N. was at a fashion event in Hanoi was identified by the police and fined VND12.5 million.
Three others in Hanoi were also fined after spearing rumors about the professor who has sat next to her on the flight.
T., a patient who was discharged after three months in a hospital wrote in her dairy: “I am happy to have recovered but I am worried whether those suspicions, false judgments will continue.”