By Daniel Bill Opio on August 3, 2020

The Impact of fake news on the spread of COVID-19 in Africa

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Photo Credit: BBC

The Outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic around the world has forced many governments and individuals to reconsider their stance against information dissemination especially on the internet. It has been argued by some of the scholars that the human race faces not only a fight against a pandemic, but also a fight against an infodemic. According to the WHO, an infodemic is an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.[1]

Finding reliable information[2] in the digital age is already challenging enough, even more so during a global pandemic when fake news, misinformation and hyperbole are rife. Few have been trained in science communication and therefore equipped to see through the sensational headlines and sham science stories.

Having only been identified in December 2019,[3] there has been little time to investigate it properly, let alone conduct large-scale randomized controlled trials or peer to peer review. There is still a great deal we don’t fully understand about COVID-19.

UNESCO is leading efforts to counter falsehoods and promote the facts about the virus. Guy Berger,[4] the Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO in an interview with UN News explained that falsehoods related to all aspects of, COVID-19 have become commonplace.

Africa is experiencing adverse health system emergencies and related social and economic impacts spawned by the COVID-19. This is triggering unprecedented response measures by governments, including enhancing health systems, imposing restrictions, and lockdowns among others although these responses are not uniform throughout. Tanzania for instance declined to lockdown the country and barely encouraged the use of masks. False claims such as “inhaling steam is an effective treatment against coronavirus” surfaced in Tanzania with an endorsement by its president. The governor of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Mike Sonko[5] was explaining why he is including bottles of Hennessy cognac in food supplies for vulnerable people in the city, saying it would serve as a “throat sanitizer” contrary to the advice given by WHO and various health organizations which revealed that drinking alcohol does not protect you against the coronavirus, but it does refer to the efficacy of alcohol-based gel to sanitize hands.[6] The consequence is complacency in mitigating contractions among the people which has fuelled more premature contractions and deaths on the continent.

As they prepare for a surge in cases, more misleading information has been spreading throughout the continent. Two posts on Facebook[7] widely shared surfaced urging Africans not to wear blue face masks amid claims that they are contaminated with toxins. The first post claimed to be quoting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the other falsely quoting the head of the WHO also urging people not to wear blue masks. On the contrary, the use of masks serves well in limiting the spread of the virus and the absence thereof makes Africans more negligent and susceptible to contracting the virus.

Furthermore, fact-checkers and medical experts reviewing coronavirus-related misinformation say that some of the most viral hoaxes[8] related to vaccines and medicines that claim to prevent or cure the disease and that would soon be commercially accessible to the public. In Uganda for instance, the population was seized with unfounded intimation from the speaker of the Parliament of a found cure by a professor which was later established to be gross misinformation. Almost a similar incident occurred in Madagascar with the distinction being that an herb had been discovered which was effectively working in offering curing treatment to patients.

It goes without saying that such instances of misinformation in the vast majority of cases downplays the mitigation efforts by causing people to either ignore the supposed preventative measures being set by the medical experts, or use them to justify behaviors they wanted to engage in such as avoiding wearing masks or disregarding the objective of social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. By now, there should be a training platform in science communication for not only journalists who are reporting on the virus in the continent but also the citizenry reading such communication to equip them with necessary skills to see through the sensational headlines and sham science stories.

 

[1] Gerrit De Vynck, Riley Griffin and Alyza Sebenius, “Social media firms scramble to contain coronavirus misinformation” <https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/social-media-firms-scramble-coronavirus-misinformation-200201160036083.html?utm_source=website&utm_medium=article_page&utm_campaign=read_more_links> Accessed on 1st  June 2020.

[2] Alice Hazelton, “How to read the news like a scientist and avoid the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’”, <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/how-to-avoid-covid-19-fake-news-coronavirus/> Accessed on 1st June 2020

[3] Ibid, (n) 2

[4]UN News, “During this coronavirus pandemic, ‘fake news’ is putting lives at risk: UNESCO”,

<< https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061592> Accessed May 30th 2020.

[5] BBC News, “Coronavirus: What misinformation has spread in Africa?”, <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51710617> Accessed on 30th May 2020

[6]WHO, “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Mythbusters”, <https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters> Accessed on 30th May 2020

[7] Ibid, (n) 5

[8] Ibid, (n) 1

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