A Small Town Was Torn Apart By Coronavirus Rumors

Two days of chaos and riots show what can happen when people don’t trust their government but instead believe rumors and misinformation spread on social media.

NOVI SANZHARY, Ukraine — The day the riots broke out began just like any other.

Bells rang out from the church as people shuffled to work and students filed into classrooms. Doctors at the town’s hospital donned their white gowns and snapped on their latex gloves. Vendors at the local market sipped sugary coffee and laid out their wares. The head of the town council pulled back the curtains in her corner office to let in the morning light before going about her usual paperwork.

By nightfall, the Ukrainian town of Novi Sanzhary, population 8,300, would be turned upside down, thrust into a state of panic and chaos stemming from residents’ fears that the novel coronavirus was going to bring death to this previously unheralded backwater.

Violence would soon break out, leading to nine police officers being injured, 24 people being arrested for rioting, with five officially charged, and a statement from President Volodymyr Zelensky describing the melee as “medieval” behavior. The government response would include visits not only by ministers but also by a celebrity TV doctor who tried to calm the town’s frayed nerves.

What caused it all? A toxic mix of limited information released by Ukraine’s authorities, disinformation spread by the public on social media, and a targeted fake news campaign from yet-to-be-identified malign actors, according to more than a dozen government officials, medical experts, and local residents interviewed by BuzzFeed News.

In an age of interconnectedness, the story of Novi Sanzhary is a microcosm of the problem of misinformation about the coronavirus that seems to have outpaced its spread, reaching millions of people around the world in a flash. Sometimes that misinformation has even come from world leaders like President Donald Trump as they turn the issue into a partisan one.

BuzzFeed News traveled to Novi Sanzhary, 210 miles east of the capital, Kyiv, to learn how the otherwise sleepy municipality became ground zero of the country’s misinformation pandemic.

Buses carrying evacuees from China to a medical facility in Novi Sanzhary on February 20, 2020.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

Protesters set fire to barricades.

AFP via Getty Images

Everyone said it began with a rumor that spread across Ukraine at blistering speed.

On Feb. 18, a plane from Wuhan, China, arrived in the country, and word started getting around that several of the 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreign nationals on board were infected with the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Upon landing, they were to be immediately bused to an undisclosed medical facility.

While the government confirmed the arrival of the plane and said it would indeed bring those on board to a medical facility in Novi Sanzhary, it stressed there was nothing to worry about: The evacuees had all been tested and none of them were infected. And anyway, they would be kept in quarantine for 14 days as a precautionary measure.

But the rumor that some evacuees were infected took hold and quickly caused an uproar.

On Feb. 19, people in the western Lviv region, afraid that some evacuees could be brought there, used tires and cars to block the entrance to a hospital. In nearby Ternopil, people gathered with a priest to pray that the group would be taken elsewhere. But in Novi Sanzhary, residents went to the extreme after learning that the group would be taken to a sanatorium there.

Surrounded by sprawling pastures and babbling rivers, Novi Sanzhary is the type of place where everybody knows just about everybody. The town’s schools, council building, market, and hospital are all within walking distance of one another. Shopkeepers welcome customers by using diminutives of their first names. The information people trust the most comes from their friends and neighbors, usually by word of mouth but increasingly over messaging apps.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Inna Koba, head of the town council, remembered only learning about the evacuees’ destination from social media around 10 p.m. on Feb. 19, when her phone started ringing and the town started buzzing.

Immediately, residents began organizing over the messaging app Viber, Facebook, and Instagram. They met on the town’s streets and erected barricades — even assigning lookouts on street corners.

Koba admitted the behavior was unusual but said that desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Over the past two months, we’ve been told and we’ve seen on TV that this is a horrible disease that there is no vaccine against. People are dying from it,” she said. “Then suddenly we find out about a plane transporting sick people. People were outraged.”

Koba told one Ukrainian news outlet that the moment felt like “Armageddon,” with everyone in panic mode. She told BuzzFeed News it was fueled by a barrage of “misinformation and fake news” spread on a Viber channel used by the town’s residents, which one of her constituents had added her to.

Data shows that the Viber group, which BuzzFeed News has since joined, was formed at 10.16 p.m. on Feb. 19. Its first message, posted by a user named Alyonka, would set the tone for the town early on. It read: “50 infected people from China are being brought to our sanitarium. We can’t afford to let them destroy our population, we must prevent countless deaths. People, rise up. We all have children!!! We must act immediately.”

The Ukrainian news site Texty documented several of the messages that followed, counting more than 10 that were posted in quick succession that included false information.

A user named Natasha said that “if we sleep this night, then we will wake up dead.”

Someone named Tanya wrote that “Chinese refugees will come dressed in camouflage” — a thinly veiled reference to the Russian soldiers who had disguised themselves during the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Another person, who identified himself as Nikolas, offered the number for a funeral home, “because people will die from the coronavirus.”

In a matter of minutes, Novi Sanzhary was whipped into a terrifying frenzy.

Overnight, groups of people left their homes to occupy the town’s center and block access to the medical facility, a Soviet-era sanatorium subordinated to the country’s Interior Ministry that sits on the bank of the Vorskla River.

As more people gathered in the town center and at the facility the next day, even more police and National Guard forces donning riot gear and driving armored personnel carriers arrived. Residents recalled them marching together in a way that felt ominous.

Koba said that only heightened tensions on the ground and seemed to confirm people’s suspicions.

“When the police, National Guard, and armored vehicles arrived here, of course, everyone got scared and thought that it’s true — that they are bringing sick people here,” she said.

Then, as the security situation deteriorated, more misinformation spread online from what appeared to be an advisory sent out via email from the country’s Health Ministry. It claimed what Novi Sanzhary’s residents most feared, that the evacuees included people infected with the coronavirus.

The information wasn’t true, but it spread rapidly nonetheless and brought tensions in Novi Sanzhary to the boiling point.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, government officials were trying to figure out what was going on and how to stop it.

“I have grounds to believe that this [email] is an information attack on the ministry. So, I have asked the head of the security service to react,” Zoryana Skaletska, the health minister at the time, wrote on Facebook on Feb. 20. “The panic spreading in Ukrainian society in connection with the evacuation of our citizens from China has been created artificially.”

The security service, known as the SBU, and the government’s Public Health Center both quickly published statements echoing Skaletska. They didn’t identify who they thought was behind the email, which spoofed the ministry’s actual email address. But they suggested it may have been done by outsiders because a foreign email service had been used to do it.

It’s still unclear where the email came from in this case, but with Russia’s documented efforts to sow discord in Ukraine through hybrid warfare — a military strategy that combines conventional warfare and cyberwarfare — and recent reports that Moscow was behind a coronavirus disinformation campaign, many in Kyiv believe their adversary to the north could be involved.

Whatever the case, the misinformation found its way into conversations on the streets of Novi Sanzhary, where residents like Vasily and Lyudmila, who were chatting in the town’s market last week when BuzzFeed News arrived, received it with great anxiety that afternoon.

“We were shocked and worried. Wouldn’t you be?” said Lyudmila, who recalled hearing about it from a friend on Instagram.

As night fell, the temperature of the Novi Sanzhary crowd rose and they began taking action.

Residents erected barricades and assigned lookouts on street corners. As the buses carrying the evacuees approached, they set fires to try to keep them out of town. They were met by phalanxes of police in riot gear who arrived with armored vehicles to push them back. As tensions escalated, violent clashes broke out. And when the buses carrying people from China finally arrived, residents shouted at them to “get out” and hurled stones that shattered the windows.

Government officials couldn’t believe what they were seeing and weren't sure what else they could do to stanch the panic. The next day, Feb. 21, the prime minister was dispatched to the town, along with the interior and health ministers. Skaletska, who, along with the prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, would later be dismissed in a major government reshuffle ordered by Zelensky, decided she would take up residence with the evacuees inside the sanatorium for the full 14 days of quarantine to show the public there was nothing to fear.

After the bout of violence and several arrests, the situation began to calm down. And over the last days in February, Ukraine’s government sent more officials and experts to better inform local residents about the coronavirus situation.

One of those people was the celebrity doctor Evgeny Komarovsky, Ukraine’s answer to Dr. Phil (he even has the mustache), who helped keep the peace and answer residents’ questions in impromptu meetings on the town’s street and at an organized question-and-answer session. Videos from his visit were posted on YouTube, where he has nearly 2 million subscribers, and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Ukraine only confirmed its first case of a coronavirus infection on March 3, in a man in the western region of Chernivtsi who had recently returned from Italy, where the outbreak is so bad that the whole country has now been completely locked down.

Looking back, residents, including doctors, said the anger and panic were stoked by the government’s decision to withhold information from them, misinformation that spread across social media, and sensational coverage by the news media.

“In my opinion, the information we receive daily from the media — about infections, deaths, etc. — actually hyped this panic,” said Olha Hirya, head doctor of Novi Sanzhary’s main hospital, whose walls were covered in signs showing patients how to protect themselves from getting sick with the coronavirus. “We have encountered several types of this virus before. The means of prevention against this virus are well known. People should be informed, but in a calm and correct way.”

In an interview in Kyiv, Volodymyr Kurpita, former chief of the Public Health Center of Ukraine, which is subordinate to the Health Ministry, placed much of the blame for the chaos on the news media but said some of it also rested on politicians who behaved irresponsibly.

“Watch any Ukrainian TV news show and you’ll see they cover the problem of the coronavirus, but it’s being discussed by politicians; it’s not being discussed by professionals,” he said. “How could a politician explain this virus? The politicians are spreading disinformation and sowing panic in society.”

Dr. Jarno Habicht, head of the World Health Organization’s office in Ukraine, told BuzzFeed News by phone that as the coronavirus spreads, “what we have learned is that communication is extremely important.”

Habicht said that the WHO has “global agreements” with Facebook and other social media outlets about how to ensure that “proper information, evidence-based information,” is shared and that bad information is removed.

“That is very important in Ukraine because it is a very social media–oriented country,” he said.

Similarly, Ukraine’s authorities are also working with Facebook and other social media companies to combat misinformation about the coronavirus spreading on the platforms, Iuliia Mendel, press secretary for Zelensky, told BuzzFeed News.

“The office of the president always is concerned about disinformation, and of course we are always in touch with social media companies,” she said. “Usually we are in touch when there is fake news.”

Facebook’s press office said in an emailed statement that the company is “in constant contact with government officials in countries where we operate in. Including Ukraine.”

Representatives for Viber couldn’t be reached for comment.

When BuzzFeed News visited Novi Sanzhary last week, there was still a lingering feeling of anxiety and fear, but many residents doubted there would be any more violence. On March 5, they were eager to welcome Zelensky, who arrived by helicopter to attend a celebration for the group of evacuees being released from quarantine.

At exactly noon on March 5, officials opened the facility’s front doors, allowing the group to step outside for the first time since their arrival. The Ukrainians embraced family members who came to greet them and bring them home. The foreigners, like Rebecca, Anila, and Susy, three Salvadoran university students who were studying Chinese in Wuhan before they were airlifted out of the city, looked awkward in a strange place they said was “definitely no five-star hotel.”

Their parting gift for enduring the quarantine? A giant pink teddy bear given to them by Zelensky.

After handing out gifts to other members of the group, the Ukrainian president admitted to BuzzFeed News that the government’s response could have been better. “We need to inform people the right way,” he said. “I think we are not 1,000% [prepared for the coronavirus], but what we can do, we are doing.”

Still, many in Novi Sanzhary said they remain skeptical of their political leadership and the traditional news media. Despite the spread of misinformation on social media, many said they still trust what they read there more than they do elsewhere. But it’s still their neighbors whom they trust most of all.

Luckily for some, there is Dr. Yulia Tsarenko, who was checking the blood pressure of Lyudmila Donets at the town’s hospital when BuzzFeed News met her. Tsarenko said that even after the protests, she has been stopped on the street and at shops around town by residents with questions about the coronavirus that suggested they are still misinformed.

“Firstly, I tell them not to panic, and also to wash their hands,” she said. “I say that everything will be fine. And it will be.”

Tsarenko said their curiosity is generally good. But among the many questions she gets are those about home remedies for the coronavirus, which she believes stem from disinformation from Soviet times.

For a glimpse into the world of Ukrainian alternative medicine, BuzzFeed News visited the local market, where vendors offered up an array of “cures” for colds, high blood pressure, and even what they said was sure to keep away the coronavirus. Regarding the latter, some prescribed a diet heavy on pickled vegetables and salt-cured pork fat known as salo, and washing it all down with vodka.

Raisa, a pensioner who was selling homemade sunflower oil near the market’s entrance, said she had a surefire way to stave off the disease sweeping across the globe. “The coronavirus is afraid of garlic and onions. Eat those,” she said, pointing to a pile of the bulbs on the ground.

Tsarenko said she tries not to laugh when people offer such remedies, and tells them eating healthily is always a good idea.

Her colleague Dr. Oleh Yakovenko said the best way to stop the spread of misinformation and panic like that kind that consumed his town is to provide people with accurate information and “changing people’s mentality from an outdated, Soviet way of thinking to a modern way.”

Koba, Novi Sanzhary’s town council chief, thought it was simpler than that.

“People spread misinformation because they do not know the truth,” she said. “All this happened because of the lack of information in the beginning.

“Tell the truth.” ●

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