COVID-19 in West Africa: Credible Information as a Vaccine Against Misinformation?

By Hawa Ba & Ayisha Osori, Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA)

During the social media age information spreads faster than any virus and there seems to be no vaccine against misinformation. As governments struggle to contain COVID19, public service announcements and communication must focus on making citizens accept that the illness is a reality, giving them the knowledge to prevent and treat the infection and debunking myths and fake stories, which impact the effectiveness of the response. This could save many lives.

If there is a thin line between love and hate, there is an even thinner line between fake news and reality, especially on social media. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, the infodemic the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the world about is spreading across West Africa. “Coronavirus does not exist”. “Bananas cure Coronavirus”. “Coronavirus is a conspiracy”. “Coronavirus was sent by God to punish humankind”. Why does misinformation thrive?

While lock down induced mischief cannot be ruled out, there are other reasons fake news and misinformation thrive: low trust, information asymmetry, a culture of weaponizing information, life experiences, cultural beliefs, myths and fragile social cohesion. This combination creates a fertile ground for fake stories which speak to the truth in people’s lives and fills the gaps in information required to manage the anxieties and realities of COVID19. As governments struggle to contain the pandemic, there are at least three areas where public service announcements and communication must focus.

Many still doubt the existence of coronavirus and struggle to believe that they can be affected by a virus which started in China.

Many still doubt the existence of coronavirus and struggle to believe that they can be affected by a virus which started in China when they have not travelled there. This is where the 5G, Bill Gates and other source conspiracy theories thrive and prominent figures have inflamed the chorus with public claims that, “coronavirus is pure invention”. Fake news of conspiracies against Africans and Muslims is too close to the reality of botched vaccine trials in northern Nigeria and two European scientists proposing that coronavirus vaccine trials start in Africa. It plays on fears that are not unfounded.

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Senegal and Kenya have acknowledged the threat that fake news poses to successful management of the pandemic and, as a deterrence, will fine anyone disseminating false information. A good start but not enough because lies spread faster than rebuttals.

It is only a matter of time before the tensions of the lockdown will lead to blaming ‘others’.

When the lines between reality, prejudice and fears intersect, it makes for fake stories that are hard to debunk. The internet is rich with conspiracy theories popular with the well and less educated, about attempts by the West to control African demography. It becomes easy to feed President Macron’s statements about Africa’s population growth into the conspiracies about vaccines being a means to control population growth.

Sometimes, underlying tensions are brought to the surface, fueled by misinformation. In Senegal divisions between people who stay home and Senegalese migrants rose with the spread of the pandemic as migrants and their families were blamed and stigmatized for bringing the foreign disease back to Africa.  Suddenly, those previously praised for foreign exchange remittances were threats to their country and unpatriotic. In Nigeria, a video about the burial of President Buhari’s Chief of Staff was alleged to have been doctored to implicate and raise tensions between those from the north where the president and his chief of staff are from and the rest of the country.

It is only a matter of time before the tensions of the lockdown, exacerbated by hunger, will lead to blaming ‘others’ which historical narratives have encouraged us to be suspicious of. New scapegoats will be identified especially amongst coronavirus survivors of which there will be many as the global recovery rate is 80 percent. A community in Cote d’Ivoire was projecting when they dismantled a testing center for fears that it would bring the infected to their neighborhoods, not seeing that the center would also serve them.

Governments public service announcements must begin to proactively address stigmatization and prejudices to manage the powerlessness that millions are facing with the COVID-19 fueled uncertainties. One antidote for a low trust society is more communication and transparency.

People want to know how to prevent infection and how to treat it.

People want to know how to prevent infection and how to treat it and the information gap is being filled with charlatans and innocents trying to be helpful. This information is crucial and in multilingual countries where many cannot read in the official language of government communication i.e., Portuguese, French and English, communication needs to be creative, in multiple languages and across the most popular platforms for different audiences.

During the Ebola crisis, SMS and WhatsApp messages in Nigeria ignited a rush to pre-dawn drinking and bathing in salty water to prevent infection. Today, the WhatsApp coronavirus prevention advise from marabouts and experts include drinking hot water every 2 hours, drinking hot beverages made of neem leaves and rubbing one’s nose with shea butter. Some of this communication looks official and often the only clue that it is not, is the generous sprinkling of typos which not many will pick up on.  It has not helped that President Alpha Conde of Guinea, proclaimed in a video that drinking hot water and rubbing menthol on one’s nose helps keep the virus away or that President Trump, popular with some West Africans, endorsed chloroquine as a treatment.

It is the responsibility of government to not add to this flood in a mindless, faceless fashion.

There are estimates that the use of social media has increased by 40 per cent during the pandemic and Whatsapp has for years, led as the most popular app for communicating in Africa. More people online and on these platforms, means more people being exposed to fake news and misinformation.

One disadvantage of a pandemic during the social media age is that information spreads faster than any virus and there is no vaccine against misinformation. It is the responsibility of government to not add to the flood of information in a mindless, faceless fashion. One option is to provide free airtime and credible information to those with influence, to speak to their communities through radio, television, Instagram live and videos so that trusted voices are constantly sharing what is true and useful. Another is to continue to collaborate with the media to fund fact checking.

As a few West African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal begin to relax lockdown rules, governments, the media and civil society must intensify communications aimed at sharing factual information on coronavirus prevention and cure; building and keeping trust; and defusing existing and new prejudices. The right communication tailored for multiple audiences could be the difference between life and death.


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