Causes and consequence of COVID-19 Information Crisis in Africa. And what we can do about it?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The ongoing coronavirus which has gutted at least 206 countries has created a new wildfire called an ‘infodemic,’ an epidemic of misinformation on the pandemic.
The infodemic is manifesting as conspiracy theories, wild stories, phantom imaginations about the origin of the pandemic and spurious treatment options and out-of-context visual materials about its effect.
The deluge of information is on the pandemic is troubling. No part of the world is immune. All African countries are affected in varying degrees. And fake news and conspiracy theories seems more believable in the psyche of many people in denial of existence of COVID-19.
Reflecting on the situation in East Africa, a key informant from Kenya said:
”There are too many videos and podcasts that promote conspiracy theories in East Africa. The videos and messages create panic and mistrust in the region. People don’t know what to believe. It is scary’
Scary. Indeed. The situation is the same in many countries. An interviewee from Western Cameroun said:
‘There is so much corona news everywhere. People are panicking. Villages in disarray as they don’t understand what is happening due to poor community sensitization.”
And back home in Nigeria the information eco-system is polluted with propaganda and falsehood, which some people have believed. Some key informants from Lagos said: ‘coronavirus is a 419-disease’ it is a fake disease created out of the super-power rivalry between China and USA’. Another said: ‘there is no disease. It’s a 5G scam’ yet another, ‘it’s a judgement from God.’
But why the misinformation and what are the consequences?

Limited knowledge of history of pandemics
Pandemics is part of humanity but most people do not have a sense of the history of pandemics. In a straw poll of colleagues, we asked how many people knew five major pandemics of modern times. Less than ten percent of the group composed of University graduates could name two previous pandemics. This poor knowledge of the history of pandemic is contributing to the lack of understanding of covid-19. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a pandemic which killed over 32 million. The “Hong Kong Flu of 1968 killed a million. The deadly 1918 influenza killed close to 50 million. What about the Black Death which ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia, from 1346 to 1353 and killed an estimated 75 and 200 million people. Not to talk of Ebola pandemic in West Africa a couple of years ago. The present pandemic has shown that there is a need to be properly educated to avoid being destroyed for lack of knowledge.
The evolving nature of coronavirus
COVID-19 is a novel virus, implying that it never existed. Scientists and public health experts are thus learning as they deal with the pandemic. There are several unknowns on its pattern and behaviour, confounding policy makers, scientists and indeed the public,that is not schooled in the language of medical science and public health. Some questions that have surfaced include the following:
The disease is not for Africans or people of African descent. However many Africans in Africa and people of African descent in the US have been affected.
The disease does not affect young people. It only for old people. Data from the evolving nature of the virus showed that young people are also victims of the pandemic.
The disease does not thrive in hot or tropical environments. We do not have any experience yet of how it’s going to behave.
Because of its newness, there are many unknowns. This calls for extreme vigilance and adherence to its containment strategies.
Lack of continental communication approach
Currently there is no coherent and widely applied communication agenda for African countries on how to address the pandemic. Pandemics require centralised and coherent messaging for harmonised understanding and action. The absence of a coordinated response at the programmatic level resulted in lack of common communication agenda. There is a strong possibility that Africa could be seriously affected, yet we are yet to see any common continental social mobilization agenda. From the various interviews in many African countries, our communication agenda for the pandemic is lacklustre. We need to wake up!

Weak national communication response
National communication structures in many countries are weak and ill-equipped to respond to the crisis. For example Nigeria has experienced a weak and anaemic public communication and social mobilization programme on the pandemic. Some of the messages from various agencies are dry, dull and sleepy. We need a more robust communication agenda with strong leadership at all levels. We need credible spokespersons to debunk myths, deliver the story from the propagandists of our time and lead a more convincing narrative in the right direction.
Generally, media reporting of the pandemic is drab and un-empowering. Many of the stories lack context and not compelling. On the other hand they have gone into an overdrive with news and information influenced by international media and gossips from conspiracy theories. This weakness has given social media a field day, with many unsubstantiated products making the rounds.

Wrong messages and actions from political, faith and social leaders
Across various levels of influencers – political, faith, celebrities and social - we have seen outright misinformation and manipulation of the narrative. Faith leaders have suddenly become experts on disease outbreak and treatment. Many of them are now preaching the ‘corona gospel’, with corrosive anointing. Unfortunately their followers have been equally bewitched into ingesting lies and half-truths. Some traditional leaders are offering bogus claims for treatment. Uninformed intellectuals are promoting conspiracy narratives in their responses. The greatest plague of the covid-19 is the army of quacks, pundits, intellectuals, false apostles, uninformed social leaders and celebrities who multiply lies and promote fake news.

The misuse of data

Data is a critical input of democracy and good governance. Data is critical to understanding the trajectory of the virus. However our airwaves and interpersonal communication devices have been flooded with data and statistics which are not true or half-truths. Some people basically lie with statistics and fishing for information and data to confirm their bias. We need credible sources of data and a critical mind to when dealing with data on the crisis.

The Menace of Social media
The ubiquity and universality of social media resulted in unprecedented misinformation about the virus. We have seen a tsunami of negative information, lies, fake news and bogus stories on the pandemic. Social media platforms have become the powerhouse of polluted information creating panic and public hysteria because of the conspiracy theories. A new bunch of jesters locally and from the Diaspora is on the rampage with delegitimizing content curated online. They unleash memes, posts, GIFs, adverts, and manipulated information materials on their victims. Our digital media platforms have suddenly become the engine of misinformation, yet they can also be used for sharing correct and truthful information. Unfortunately, correct news does not move as fast as negative news.
Scarcity of local language messaging
There is a high level of overdependence of messaging in official language to the detriment of conceptualising and implementing message development in local languages. The public health education response at the onset of the pandemic was hardly in local languages. In Nigeria Health promotion has over the years been relegated to the background in public health promotion and education efforts across the country. Often times health promotion efforts are introduced as an afterthought of the proper things to do.
What are the consequences of this information crisis? Here is our summary of the possible consequences.
The reign of misinformation
Massive overload of wrong misinformation on the origin of the pandemic;
Wrong information on who could get infected and means of protection against infection;
Misinformation on actions to take;
Multiplication and speedy dissemination of misinformation;
Curating wrong content on digital media;
Missed opportunity for effective health on pandemics;
Repetition and circulation of false/misleading narrative;
Giving oxygen to falsehood.

Stress, panic, fear and hysteria
Fear and panic in many African countries;
Fear about death and the future;
A revival of fatalism;
Sick of information;
Confusion on what to believe;
Believing everything shared on social media;
Deleting everything shared on social media.

Delegitimizing the pandemic
People denying the pandemic;
Trivializing the effect of the pandemic;
Stigmatizing groups that are considered more vulnerable – the rich, the travellers;
Sharing innuendos on developed countries experiencing the worse level of infection;
Believing a false narrative e.g., Africans don’t catch the virus or that the virus is for travellers, the rich, the ‘been to.’

Apathy and lack of compliance to containment strategies
Public not fully supportive of containment strategy;
Disobedience to government action;
Organizing misinformation campaign on government welfare action as illustrated in Nigeria.

A new imperative for fact checking: The information crisis underscores the role of fact checking in information dissemination. Even if we can’t have ‘gatekeepers’ in the truest sense of the word on social media, we all need to pay attention to fact- checking at the individual and institutional level.
Speedy and creative communication to promote a counter narrative to the current one. People are desperate for information. We need speedy communication to address the myths and promote empowering messages. Both official and unofficial formats are needed to promote the correct narrative. Conspiracy theories need to be addressed directly with credible information and sources. Coordinated effort by media and fact-checking organisations need to be stepped up. 
Strengthening behavior change communication structures: Covid-19 brought to the fore the importance of health promotion/education and behaviour change communication. The virus does just not spread, people spread it. And to prevent it, people have to take up certain behavior practices, which then underscores the invaluable role of the health promotion/education and behavior change communication.
Media institutional response to improved health, medical science and science reporting. This aspect of journalism is almost dead in a number of media houses. This can be built upon a number of initiatives from the last decade. One of such was the World Federation of Science Journalists efforts that built capacity of Anglophone/Francophone, Arabophone, Latin America and Asian journalists on science journalism. There are other efforts from other country based organisations like the Development Communications Network, based in Nigeria. These efforts, and many others, needs immediate revival and/or reinvigoration.

In summary, Covid-19 information crisis is a truth war. It is reflection of the ‘new information disorder’ that needs immediate attention by experts and non-experts alike. In a DIY (Do It Yourself), all citizens need to shine their eyes and discover the truth for themselves, if not nations would drown in trouble sea of falsehood and half-truths.

Adebayo Fayoyin, Visiting Professor, Dept of Mass Communication, Caleb University, Imota Lagos &
Akin Jimoh,
Executive Director Development Communications Network, Lagos