Misleading headlines and a wildly erroneous quote have added fuel to unfounded fears about Muslims and COVID-19.

The past few weeks have seen constant false accusations that Muslims are not adhering to the lockdown measures to contain the Coronavirus pandemic. At the start of April, HOPE not hate reported on a flurry of fake news insisting that mosques across the country had remained open in breach of legislation.

On Monday, The Sunday Times printed an article that has prompted a new wave of concern about whether the observance of Ramadan might lead to a ‘big spike’ in cases of COVID-19. The article, which made extensive reference to the fact that black and minority ethnic people appear to be dying of COVID-19 at a disproportionately high rate, contained a quote from a consultant nephrologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, Dr Adnan Sharif. Dr Sharif observed that Ramadan is traditionally a communal affair and that there was concern that there may be an ensuing spike in cases if social distancing were not observed:

“For us, Ramadan is a big concern. Anything that leads to more social interaction is a big worry and Ramadan is by its very nature a community thing […] People traditionally gather to open and close prayers and break [their] fast at sundown with friends and neighbours, which could cause a big spike in infections”

While this is certainly an important point to raise, the headline of the article  – “Experts fear a spike in UK coronavirus cases during Ramadan” – and those of other papers that picked up the story – was somewhat misleading. Since they only had one quote on the matter, the use of plural is questionable. Furthermore, while medical professionals should consider all risks linked to the spread of COVID-19, there is no evidence the Muslim community is not taking the lockdown seriously.

Other papers chose to go even further. For reasons best known to themselves, Metro decided to change the quote from “big spike” to “huge spike” for their headline, before later removing the adjective after complaints.  

Metro’s exaggerated headline changed after complaints.

But the Daily Mail truly put the icing on the cake with their article, which managed to find a supporting statement in which every single detail was wrong:

“His [Dr Sharif’s] fears were echoed by Neil Hubbard, speaking for the Independent Doctor’s Association, who said, ‘he has a point’. […] Mr Hubbard, who is currently working on AI in cancer diagnosis and transplant research, said: ‘If you were to examine why the Government has closed all churches and then look at the spread in Italy where there are many older people going to mass sometimes daily, you will see that the good doctor may have a point.’ 

It’s hard to know where to begin in listing the errors here. The person that the Daily Mail spoke to was called Neil Huband, not Hubbard. Mr Huband formerly worked with the Independent Doctor’s Federation, not Association, and was not providing a quote on their behalf. Mr Huband is not “working on AI in cancer diagnosis and transplant research” – possibly the journalist has mistaken him for the Neil Hubbard who works in cancer research at the University of California. Neil Huband is not a medical professional, and worked primarily in PR for the health industry before his retirement.  The Mail later removed the quote from Mr Huband after he got in touch with them to complain, changing their headline from “Medics warn” to “Medic warns”. They did not, however, add any note explaining how this mistake had occurred.

The Daily Mail changed their headline after removing the erroneous quote.

Leaving aside the inclusion of this wildly misleading quote, the framing of these stories matter. Ramadan will lead to a huge spike in cases only if Muslims do not adhere to social distancing. While the traditionally communal practises of Ramadan would be hugely concerning if practised this year, there is currently no evidence that it will be.

The mosques and community spaces where communal prayers and iftars would ordinarily take place remain closed. In fact, many mosques have offered up their premises to be used as facilities to alleviate pressure on hospices, hospitals and mortuaries.  As each of the articles noted, the Muslim community is coming up with new ways to observe Ramadan, from radio broadcasts of prayer services to virtual iftars. Initiatives like Open Iftar will allow the community to break their fast together online, and community leaders have said that although congregational prayers are not possible, Muslims can focus on charity which is another important component of Ramadan.

Muslim organisations are also pushing out constant messages about how social distancing is part of a Muslim’s duty, and how one can support the fight against COVID-19 during Ramadan. 

The framing of these articles conflated an observable fact – that BME Brits appear to be dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately higher rate – with the potential consequences of Ramadan. Whatever is causing the higher death rate among BME Brits, many of whom are not Muslim, it is not a religious festival that has not happened yet. While much of the content in these articles was uncontentious, the effect of the headlines meant they were quickly picked up by anti-Muslim figures such as Britain First and Catherine Blaiklock, for whom the headlines work perfectly as supporting evidence for their existing false narrative that Muslims are refusing to practise social distancing.

Newspaper editors must take care to avoid providing ammunition to those who see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to smear minority groups.While Ramadan, like other religious celebrations such as Easter or Passover, is impacted by COVID-19 precautions, communities are adapting rapidly to the situation.

As Shaista Aziz, a Councillor in Oxford and anti-racism campaigner told us:

“We know from listening to people and communities that the far right across the country are pushing fake news about the spread of Covid-19 being linked to Muslim communities. It is dangerous. I am 100% sure that these complaints will increase during Ramadan and the vast majority will be about the imaginary fear of Muslims, not rooted in reality. Everyone – including the media – have a duty to take care in how they discuss these topics so they don’t create new tensions.”