Dangerous misinformation on coronavirus in Nigeria


March 30, 2020

By Wole Elegbede

As at the date of publishing this story, more than three months after the first reported case of coronavirus in China, Nigeria and the rest of the world continue to grapple with how to tackle the disease. The challenge about the disease in Nigeria is not limited to saving people from death and stopping the spread of the disease, but dealing with fallouts, one of which is the spread of fake contents and misinformation about the disease, especially in the social media.

In my searches across the social media channels during the period, I found out that the misinformation appear more on facebook and whatsapp. These fake  contents border on the unimaginable to the ridiculous, myths and misconceptions . Some fake stories may indeed be amusing to the reader, but the danger that they pose to health and society could be enormous; they could be counterproductive and result in more deaths.

The disease which broke out in Wuhan, China, sometimes in December 2019, has taken the world by the jugular, causing deaths, creating panic, outstretching health facilities and destabilising economies across nations.

In Nigeria, the fake news definitely are out of place with the press releases and the information on the websites of local and international organisations  charged with the responsibilities of controlling the disease and providing credible information on its outbreak. I had checked the fake stories against the backdrop of the information on the websites of such organisations as the Nigerian Centre For Disease Control (NCDC), the Nigerian office of World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the fake news didn't  add up.  

The Nigeria office of WHO is not unaware of this misinformation in the country and has launched a media campaign against it. On 23rd March 2020, the organisation used its twitter handle to alert Nigerians on the distribution of wrong information and fake contents in the media about the pandemic. It advises people to visit the official website and social media pages of WHO, the Federal Ministry of Health and NCDC for “credible information.”  

Some Dimensions Of The Fake News  

1. Lemon can fight off coronavirus
One such fake news that has circulated on media channels in Nigeria originates from a man who introduced himself as Laila Ahmadi from China. The news goes thus: "Hello, I'm Laila Ahmadi from China, student at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Zanjan University.
The Corona virus or COVD-19 will reach any country sooner or later, & there is no doubt that many countries do not have any sophisticated diagnostic kits or equipment.....It is important to have greater knowledge of the disease: Professor Chen Horin, CEO of Beijing Military Hospital, said: “Sliced ​​lemon in a glass of warm water can save your life.” Fact is that “lemon” has never been recommended as a cure for coronavirus by all the organisations officially involved in fighting the disease in Nigeria.

2. Maintenance of body heat, eating of ginger and physical exercise can prevent the disease
The source of this information is reported to be a Master Degree holder who recently worked in Shenzhen Hospital and later  transferred to Wuhan the epic center of the disease to study the new pneumonia virus. He called his relatives to pass this useful  information to all relatives and friends.. He was quoted to have told them “Therefore, drink plenty of hot water to prevent the virus. As long as the body maintains heat, eat more ginger and do more exercise, you will not be infected with the virus.” This sort of news should be taken with pinch of salt. First, the source of information was not named. Secondly, using the Master's degree card the authority to back up the news is deceptive because the field of authority of the degree holder may be required to give quality to the source. Thirdly, the measures recommended in the fake story do not tally with the preventive measures circulated worldwide by WHO and partner agencies. For the purpose of providing the correct and accurate information to the people, I took my to check WHO's official communication website where the “basic protective measures against the new coronavirus” are listed out as:
• wash your hands frequently
• maintain social distancing
• avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
• practice respiratory hygiene
• If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early
• Stay informed and follow advice given by your healthcare provider

3. The Senegalese serum is effective against the disease
This is another news that had ended up as a misinformation. It reads like this: “China officially announced, just a few hours ago, the success of the Senegalese serum that Diouf Sar, the Senegalese Minister of Health, presented to the Chinese Ministry of Health to treat the Corona virus, which turned out to be 100% effective on more than 7, cases that have been cured, so that China announces that Senegalese doctors have proven to the world that they are manufacturers. Life has become a 100% Senegalese serum, the right to export to all countries of the world, and this at prices set by the Senegalese Ministry of Health.” As at the time of going to the press, no single vaccine exist against coronavirus, though information has filtered out that the international drug manufacturer, Rogue, is on the verge of launching a vaccine.

4. Stay at home and collect $25
The news that the Nigerian government will pay 8,500 naira (approx: 25 dollar) to Nigerians for a stay at home order is false. Here's the  said faksehood: “Nigerian government swings into action!. All Nigerians are entitled to 8,500 per week to stay at home! In a bid to control the spread of CONVID 19  novel coronavirus... The government grant is available to everyone starting Monday 23 March 2020.  Sai Baba!!! This story appeared to have been spinned by a propagandist not necessarily to encourage Nigerians to stay at home but to endear the impoverished populace to the current administration which will only succeed in creating suspense and raising false hopes of the citizenry. The appearance of the slogan, "Sai Baba” in that piece of misinformation has demonstrated that propagandists are taking advantage of coronavirus for sloganeering and politics. Up till now, there has not been a formal proclamation by the Nigerian government to the citizens to stay at home, neither has there been any declaration to pay any sum of money for staying at home.

 5. Other independent efforts to fact check fake coronavirus news
I have come across some efforts or read stories in the Nigerian media aimed to debunk the fake coronavirus news just like I did in this piece. The online edition of Nigerian Tribune, the oldest tabloid in Nigeria, had fact-checked the following information on the disease on March 15, 2020:
“Coronavirus before it reaches the lungs, it remains in the throat for four days and at this time, the person begins to cough and have throat pains. If he drinks water a lot and gargling with warm water & salt or vinegar eliminates the virus. Spread this information because you can save someone with this information.”  The verdict of the newspaper: False.

Likewise, the online edition of the Nigerian newspaper, The Guardian, did a fact check on a Facebook photo published by AIT News Nigeria claiming that the man who drove the first person who tested positive to the  coronavirus in Nigeria from the airport to Ogun State, one Adewale Isaac Olorogun escaped from a hospital where he was receiving treatment after he also tested positive to the virus. After its investigations, The Guardian published this resdult: “The post contains claims that are untrue. AIT Nigeria News is a clone of the African Independent Television’s page that passes itself across as the actual AIT Facebook page.

“The page has a history of posting false claims. A Google reverse image search on Google showed the picture it shared as that of the driver was first published in a story written by Monica Mark for BuzzFeed News on December 15, 2018. It was taken by Fati Abubakar for BuzzFeed News. The same picture was pubished by BuzzFeed on Twitter, at least twice, on the same date."

To stem the rising tide of fake and disruptive news, Facebook and Whatsapp have geared up collaborations with WHO and NCDC. Facebook says that “Our global network of third-party fact-checkers are continuing their work in reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the coronavirus. In Nigeria this includes AFP and AfricaCheck, with the latter supporting local languages including Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.”

The cironavirus debacle will surely provide a lesson on how to be more effective coping with such aggravations in the future. Journalists should be ready to continue to provide truthful and accurate information. as well as collaborate with experts who work directly in the epic center of emerging crisis for the purpose of dishing out reliable contents.

* Elegbede is a multimedia journalist, the Founder of Merit News Online and Project Director of Press Attack Monitor, a digital communications platform that exposes press freedom abuses in Nigeria

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