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Fake news obstructs Africa's coronavirus response

Cai Nebe
March 21, 2020

Fear-mongering and homemade remedies: Fake news is getting in the way as Africa responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. DW correspondents around the continent asked experts to debunk a few of the damaging coronavirus myths.

A magnifying glass over the word FAKE
Image: Imago Images/Panthermedia/O. Le Moal

Africa's weak public health systems, overcrowded cities, and poverty levels makes fertile ground for the coronavirus to wreak havoc. The continent is taking precautionary action: limiting travel, locking down public places or shutting borders to curb the spread.

But no government can stem the spread of fake news. As the pandemic gains a foothold and unsubstantiated claims, cures and advice do the rounds, Africa's health experts are urging caution.

Read more:  Price hikes in Africa aggravate the coronavirus crisis

East Africa on edge

Uganda's Virus Research Institute is on high alert. Director Professor Pontian Kaleebu knows keeping track is key to stopping coronavirus.

"The more people travel to a place from an infected site the more cases you are going to have,” he told DW.

A popular theory is that Africa's generally hot climate will slow the virus. It's too early to tell if climate plays any role.

"We don't have enough cases to say in Africa there are less transmissions. So let's take it that the virus can be transmitted by Africans in Africa," Kaleebu said.

Another theory: Africa's largely rural-based population will slow the pandemic. This may hold water, according to Kaleebu: "Living in big, crowded cities is a higher risk because there are more chances of contaminating and passing on the virus to others."

One rumour circulating in Uganda is that imported second-hand clothes could spread the coronavirus. Dr. Elizabeth Kiracho, the head of epidemiology at Makerere University's School of Public Health, says transmission could only happen if the people selling the clothes are infected.

"The virus has a certain amount of hours to spread. By the time the clothes get here, they won't not have the virus on them. But we need to make sure that we are always using sanitizers," Kiracho told DW.

Africa's coronavirus epicenter

Most of the 54 countries in Africa have reported coronavirus cases. South Africa, one of the most developed countries, has the highest number by far. The first detected cases were traced to people returning from Europe, but South Africa is now seeing local transmission. The number of confirmed cases has increased exponentially.

The spreading fake of news and disinformation about COVID19 was made a criminal offence when the country declared a national state of disaster is in place.

As people seek answers, fake news has lead some to think the more Europeans and Asians around, the bigger the chances of an outbreak. Professor Karen Hofman of the Witwatersrand University School of Public Health says this is nonsense. 

"I don't think that African countries that have a lot of Europeans or Chinese, people who living in those countries are at higher risk," she said.

The coronavirus initially affected mostly older people, starting rumors that children and young people would not be infected. Hofman is not so sure.

"It seems like children are not very symptomatic. They potentially could spread the virus, but they seem to be very unlikely to die."

Hofman says fighting the virus is about maintaining personal hygiene, and washing one's hands, not secret recipes.

"There is no specific diet unfortunately. I wish there were. Just eat as healthily as you can," she told DW.

Read more: Ebola-hit West African nations on alert amid coronavirus pandemic

A man with his hands toilet rolls in a supermarket | Coronavirus | Kauf von Toilettenpapier
The knee-jerk reaction among wealthy and middle class South Africans to the national state of disaster due to coronavirus has been panic-buyingImage: Reuters/R. Ward

Coronavirus 'cures' in Nigeria

The coronavirus has caused panic in Nigeria. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media throw up fake cures such as mixing garlic and honey, consuming cow urine and many more. And it does not stop there, says Zaharadden Ubale, a social media activist in Nigeria.

"People said you can kill the coronavirus with chloroquine. In another places they said coronavirus cannot withstand the temperature we have in our locality. That's also fake news."

Fear mongering has even caused locals to run away from foreign-looking people. There is also anxiety about Nigeria's close ties to China. This does not mean, however, that Nigeria should stop doing business with China, according to epidemiologist Dr. Yerma Ahmad Adamu.

"You can not say because it started in China that now you run away from Chinese businesses. It has entered Europe and almost all other areas in the world," he said.

How deepfake videos are made

But can staying in one place be a solution? In Nigeria, public health expert A'isha Muhammad Yayajo thinks it can slow the spread.

"You shouldn't travel to places that have infection cases. This coronavirus spreads through person-to-person contact.

Some believe the ebola outbreak has prepared Africa. After all, isolation facilities and expertise in controlling infectious diseases still exist. But Dr. Adamu doubts this will help fight coronavirus: "The treatment for ebola is different. It does not guarantee our healthcare system is prepared for such infections."   

So far no geographical, cultural or national boundaries has been too much for the coronavirus. Quite where the pandemic will leave Africa health wise and economically is anyone's guess. But health experts agree on one thing: spreading fake news helps nothing.

Frank Yiga (Kampala), Thuso Khumalo (Johannesburg), Muhammad Al-Amin (Maiduguri) and Benita van Eyssen (Bonn) contributed to this report.