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Fake news hinders Africa's fight against COVID

December 31, 2021

Damaging myths about the coronavirus have been spreading across Africa through social media — fueling mistrust for vaccines designed to protect people. Even prominent influencers have been peddling false news.

Neue Coronavirus Covid 19 SARS-CoV-2 Variante Omicron B.1.1.529
Image: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic has lingered on for almost two years amid the emergence of new variants. In Africa, the battle is often a daunting one.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had set a year-end target for each African country to fully vaccinate 40% of their population, but that goal has been missed.

Just seven out of 54 countries on the continent have reached the 40% target, according to the WHO. That translates to about 9% of Africans being fully vaccinated against COVID.

A lot of African countries have been unable to inoculate a majority of their people because of a lack of doses. Even more worrying, though, is the high level of vaccine hesitancy.

Fake news about COVID-19 vaccinesthat has spread across social media in Africa has played a major role.

Since the start of the pandemic, rumors and conspiracy theories have been rife, unsettling many people and making vaccination campaigns more difficult.

One woman who joined a queue to get vaccinated in a small village in eastern Kenya told DW that many of her friends had refused to get jabs. "I also had a queasy feeling," she said.

But she finally took the opportunity and got her jab. The reason for her friends' mistrust, she said, was because they were "afraid that they will supposedly die two years after the vaccination."

COVID-19 Special: Vaccine hesitancy in South Africa

Influencers spreading fake news

False information is spread by prominent people.

"Great influence in spreading [fake news] also comes from religious leaders who claim vaccinations have effects on women's fertility, breastfeeding, and even death," the WHO's infodemic manager, Sergio Cecchini, told DW.

Such false reports are one reason why many people do not get vaccinated.

The WHO also found that the majority of fake news is produced and spread in North America, Australia, and Russia and elsewhere in Europe. From there, they also reach African social media channels.

The global health body is fighting this kind of misinformation on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

Since December 2020, the WHO has been working with 20 partners in Africa. They formed the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance, whose aim is to debunk dangerous myths about the pandemic and COVID vaccines.

Shouting down misinformation on COVID-19 in Ghana

Fighting back against false news

"We identify misinformation with our social media listening tools and track it as it spreads rapidly," Cecchini said.

"We immediately create a video debunking the rumor and providing accurate information," he added. 

The network said it had produced more than 250 videos so far, reaching about 170 million people in Africa.

It works to educate people across the continent with facts about the pandemic.

"We are trying to find gaps in knowledge and fill them with correct information," Cecchini said.

Alphonce Shiundu, the editor at Africa Check, a group of fact-checkers in Kenya, told DW that such work is crucial to ensuring that people don't get the wrong information on the pandemic. His team has also found that even prominent people give dangerous advice. 

"The governor of Nairobi distributed alcohol to the poor in the slums — it was cognac — and told them it helped disinfect the throat and protected against COVID-19," Shiundu said.

Apparently, the politician thought that alcoholic drinks might protect people because hand sanitizers also contain alcohol.

Misinformation is a big problem in Kenya and other African countries, Shiundu said.

"We did a training with journalists. One participant told us that some of her friends came to her after she had been vaccinated and said that she was now infertile," he said.

It was also not uncommon for economic interests to be behind dubious reports with which providers wanted to sell miracle cures for COVID-19 or other diseases.

In Ghana, a similarly doubtful message recently went viral in a video that was viewed 19,000 times on Facebook, said Rabiu Alhassan, editor-in-chief at GhanaFact in Accra.

According to the video, a cocktail of ginger, garlic, lemon and paracetamol was supposed to cure the viral disease.

Punishable by law

Alhassan wants to reach even larger segments of the population with credible information about the pandemic in their own local languages — even offline. In doing so, he plans to work with respected local leaders and influencers to reach these communities.

In Kenya, spreading misinformation and hate comments online has been a criminal offense since 2018, with the threat of a fine and jail time.

Shiundu also advised social network users to be vigilant and check every message for credibility. The work of fact-checkers could just provide people with the right information to aid the fight against the pandemic.

Jan-Philipp Scholz contributed to this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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