With over 250,000 cases, misinformation is compromising Africa’s Covid-19 response

Sourcing information.
Sourcing information.
Image: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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When the first cases of  Covid-19 were recorded in Africa in February, it was clear governments across the continent faced a test against tackling the virus as well as misinformation.

Within days of the first case in Nigeria, WhatsApp broadcasts spreading misleading information about cures and remedies for the novel coronavirus had already made the rounds. It followed similar episodes back in 2014 during an Ebola epidemic in parts of West Africa which saw WhatsApp broadcasts prescribing salt baths as a cure for the disease. Despite being debunked by the government, two people died and several others were hospitalized over excessive salt consumption in Nigeria.

As the crisis deepens, with over 277,000 cases now recorded across the continent, and healthcare systems as well as front-line medical workers increasingly stretched, the need to combat coronavirus-related misinformation is far more heightened.

It’s a sentiment echoed in the latest Digital News Report by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford. “Greater reliance on social media and other platforms give people access to a wider range of sources and “alternative facts”, some of which are at odds with official advice, misleading, or simply false,” the report says.

The report particularly notes, amid the crisis, WhatsApp has recorded the largest spike in usage for news consumption globally. That increase is likely also seen among users across Africa, where WhatsApp is so popular, even knock-off versions of the app are widely used. The catch, however, is that an increase in usage likely also translates into an increase in the spread and consumption of misinformation. Indeed, 76% of respondents in Kenya and 72% in South Africa say they are concerned about being unable to detect fake news on the internet, the report says.

For their part, African governments have attempted to build sources of credible coronavirus-related information, from daily press briefings and regularly updated online data portals to tech-based solutions like South Africa’s WhatsApp bot, which has since been adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But those standards have not uniform across the continent. In Tanzania, where the government stopped publishing coronavirus-related data over 50 days ago, president John Magufuli has asked citizens not to accept donations of face masks and has urged public religious gatherings to pray the virus away. Meanwhile in Burundi, the government’s shoddy response to the viral outbreak has included undergoing presidential elections with little evidence of safety measures as well kicking out a WHO coronavirus response task-force.

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