Public distrust hampers Africa fight against virus misinformation

Viral messages on Facebook and WhatsApp carry unfounded advice that gargling with vinegar eliminates the virus or that black people are resistant to it because of their skin colour.
Viral messages on Facebook and WhatsApp carry unfounded advice that gargling with vinegar eliminates the virus or that black people are resistant to it because of their skin colour.
Image: Jozef Polc/123rf.com

African nations fighting the novel coronavirus face a foe as stealthy and dangerous as the microbe itself: misinformation and apathy, fuelled by deep distrust of government.

Bogus news and indifference to official warnings are emerging as giant obstacles in a region where poor health care infrastructure, sanitation and overcrowded slums provide fertile ground for Covid-19 to spread.

Africa has recorded nearly 2,800 cases and at least 70 deaths, according to an AFP compilation as of Thursday.

The tally may lag far behind that of other continents, but the World Health Organisation (WHO), backed by the top names in medicine, has bluntly warned: “Prepare for the worst”.

African countries have begun to implement strict rules including lockdowns, curfews and even prison terms for those sharing false claims. But such measures appear futile in stopping the spread of misinformation.

AFP Fact Check in Africa has debunked dozens of claims in various languages that have fanned out across the continent via social media platforms and messaging services.

Viral messages on Facebook and WhatsApp carry unfounded advice that gargling with vinegar eliminates the virus or that black people are resistant to it because of their skin colour.

“This is a new challenge that we are facing and it's a big challenge,” South African infectious disease expert Thumbi Ndung'u said.

“If governments are not forthcoming ... or seem to be hiding information, then there are people who step into that space and some of those people may not necessarily have good intentions.”

While Facebook has toughened its policy towards those spreading potentially harmful information, Twitter now slaps warning labels on manipulated images or videos.

But many claims in Africa circulate in private groups on the encrypted WhatsApp platform, making it harder to target them.

In SA, currently the region's worst-hit country, misinformation started to circulate long before the first of its more than 900 cases was confirmed.

Many viral claims have the potential to cause real-life harm, such as doctored government documents with misleading coronavirus advice.

To counter the trend, officials are holding regular press conferences and have launched a coronavirus information website, toll-free number and WhatsApp support line.

On March 19, the government went a step further when it announced that peddling fake coronavirus information would be punished with up to six months in jail.

“We must stop spreading fake news that either ridicule the efforts of the health workers or that frighten people ... We need those communities to be well-informed so that they do not panic in the wrong way and end up causing more problems for ourselves,” health minister Zweli Mkhize warned earlier this month.

Kenya has already detained two people, including popular blogger Robert Alai, for sharing coronavirus misinformation under controversial cybercrime laws introduced in 2018.

Alai was released on bail this week after being charged over a tweet saying the government was concealing the deaths of two coronavirus victims.

There have been nearly 30 confirmed infections in the East African nation but no reported deaths so far.

Opponents, who have unsuccessfully tried to challenge the legislation in court, say it violates media freedom and allows authorities to clamp down on critics.

But the government insists the measure is needed to fight the deluge of false claims circulating on social media.

“Kenyans should desist from misinformation ... rumours must stop. Those who do not will be arrested,” the health minister warned in one of his daily coronavirus briefings.

When the first infections were confirmed in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, conspiracy theories abounded that the government in the corruption-plagued country had made up the cases to cash in on international funds.

“Nigerians at the grassroot (sic), where (the) majority live, think coronavirus is a ruse or even a ploy by the government to 'steal' more money,” Nigerian investigative journalist Damilola Banjo tweeted.

Central to the claim, shared online by politicians and celebrities, was the government's refusal to name an Italian businessman who was the first confirmed case in Nigeria

Hakeem Olayemi, a customer at a food stall in Lagos, said he did not believe the official argument of “patient-doctor confidentiality”.

“Why have they not named the Italian man?” he asked. — AFP


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