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Efforts to Contain Coronavirus Spread in Africa Undermined by Misinformation

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by Philip Obaji Jr.

With 11,000 cumulative cases confirmed in Africa as of today, the novel coronavirus pandemic is expanding across the continent. It may only be a matter of time before the number of cases begins to resemble that of Europe, or even the United States.

As the number of infections and deaths grow daily, so also does public anxiety, particularly in rural areas where primary health care is often lacking. The continent, just like the rest of the world, is struggling to contain the spread of the virus. But the problem is made worse by a familiar enemy during pandemics: misinformation.

When COVID-19 first appeared in major cities in sub-Saharan Africa, messages on social media—especially broadcasts on WhatsApp—prescribing phony coronavirus cures and self-check methods began to go viral. Many of these messages encouraged citizens to act in contradiction to the advice of public health authorities.

In Nigeria, for example, despite warnings from health authorities against the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, many rushed to pharmacies and medicine stores to buy the drug after false messages spread through social media that it could be taken to prevent coronavirus infection. Some even overdosed on the drug and had to be hospitalized.

Across the continent, rumors proliferate that black Africans are immune to the disease and that the virus cannot survive in high-temperature climates. These false messages are not only encouraging people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 to downplay them as those of the common cold and to not seek ways to get tested, but they are also ensuring that many do not adhere to the much more important advice to practice social distancing.

As the history of disease outbreaks in Africa makes clear, misinformation plays a key role in undermining containment efforts.

Three decades ago, disinformation from the Soviet Union which claimed that the US was responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa spurred questions in parts of the continent as to whether the disease was real or fake. When the disease became widespread and a number of countries in worse-hit southern Africa began to ramp up prevention programs, stories of an unproven AIDS cure began to emerge, which kept people from seeking life-saving treatments. There were also rumors that men could be cured of AIDS by having sex with a virgin, which led to the rape of young girls and babies, further widening the spread of the disease. Today, the four countries with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world are in southern Africa.

A more recent example is from the early months of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa which killed over 11,000 people. Russian trolls shared messages accusing the US of bringing Ebola to the region and health officials battled a surge of infections propelled by misinformation and doubt about the disease’s existence.

In Sierra Leone, many viewed the disease as a government conspiracy to depopulate the Kailahun district of the country. Some resisted the arrival of health workers and stoned the vehicles of Doctors Without Borders. In Liberia, many believed the virus was a move by corrupt government officials to embezzle taxpayer money.

Similar rumors had disastrous consequences for healthcare workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who were accused of aiding the government in infecting opposition communities during the Ebola outbreak of 2018, that saw 3,429 infections and 2,251 deaths. More than 130 attacks on healthcare facilities, which killed dozens of people, were carried out by armed groups in the country.

The fallout of Ebola denial in West and Central Africa was its continued spread and the deaths of thousands. The Ebola outbreak also put a huge strain on the healthcare systems in the countries affected. The same scenario seems to be repeating itself in the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, anti-foreigner sentiment—akin to what transpired in the DRC during the Ebola outbreak of 2018—grew in Ethiopia following the outbreak of the coronavirus. A security alert from the US embassy warned that “foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services, being [sic] spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19.” Given the history of such incidents in response to disease pandemics, it is fairly likely that others will occur throughout Africa as the continent struggles to contain the virus.

Governments and social media companies are making efforts to push back against false information about the coronavirus. As recently reported, South Africa has set up a WhatsApp support service to provide information on the coronavirus to its citizens. A similar service is being carried out in Senegal by a group of volunteers partnering with the government. In Nigeria, Facebook is using WhatsApp to garner false information and then supply fact-checked information to users of the app, while Twitter has launched a search prompt for its African users that ensures that anyone searching for information on the coronavirus is presented with tweets from local health authorities instead of potentially false viral tweets.

While these efforts are commendable and useful, they are far from enough. If the continent’s governments and institutions struggle to educate the vast majority of citizens on the truth about the coronavirus quickly, it may mean that COVID-19 could claim more lives than the thousands lost to Ebola between 2014 and 2020.

Philip Obaji Jr. is a journalist based in Nigeria. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Daily Beast, The Hill, IRIN News, and The Guardian.