By Hellen Owuor
“ My life was consumed by fear and panic for the better part of 2020. I was constantly on my phone reading messages and watching videos on Facebook or WhatsApp about COVID-19 and how people are randomly collapsing on the streets and dead bodies everywhere. Sadly, I now realize that this information fueled my fear yet most of it was false,” Nina says as she strokes her kitten back and forth. “To a point, it affected my relationship with some of my friends and family because I didn’t want to visit anyone nor to be visited,” she adds.
Amid the confusion and trying to grasp any information available about COVID-19, many fell victim to misinformation with some believing in the existence of the virus and others not. For example, on one extreme some people believed that COVID-19 does not exist, or that it doesn’t affect Africans. As a result, they ignored directives from the government and other entities such as the World Health Organization urging them to take protective measures. On the other extreme, some chose to believe myths such as COVID-19 is caused by simply talking to an infected person, therefore, locking themselves indoors. Ernestine says, “ A friend of mine bought 50kgs of rice which has now expired since he lives alone.” Panic buying was evident in Kenya having people stocking cereals, tissue rolls, sanitizers, and even drugs.
The panic was fueled by misinformation on COVID-19 through videos, images, and texts that were constantly shared across social media intentionally or unintentionally. The root of misinformation is an individual or group that disseminates information intending to harm another group resulting in a political, social, or economical gain. These individuals prey on innocent social media users thirsting for information to help spread misinformation. This is seen in the case of COVID-19 where many believed, shared, and acted based on misinformation received.
Apart from Kenyan citizens, the Government of Kenya has also fallen victim to the COVID-19 infodemic. Misinformation has poked holes in the trust some Kenyans once had in their government slowing down the efforts of the Ministry of Health and Health Practitioners to administer the COVID-19 vaccines and eradicate the virus. In 2021 when it is expected that everyone would be running for the vaccine, some Kenyans are still hesitant on getting the jabs. As of June 10, 2021, Kenya was ranked at number 25 out of 48 countries in Africa having 1.97 COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people compared to Seychelles with the highest in Africa at 139.51 vaccine doses per 100 people (Statista). At the continental level, by June 17, 2021, Africa had the second-lowest number of COVID-19 doses administered out of six continents.
Through interactions with some citizens, it is clear that some took the vaccines because of circumstances and not out of their own will. When asked to talk about how they feel about vaccination and the government’s conduct, this is what some Kenyans had to say.
Below are some of the misleading information that has led to the friction between the government and its people:
In February 2020, a plane from China carrying 239 passengers landed in Kenya, when most countries affected by COVID-19 at the time had closed their borders. This act led to an uproar among Kenyans, coming at a time when China accounted for the bulk of COVID-19 cases. At the time, some messages were circulating on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter falsely claiming that COVID-19 was created in a lab in China. The lengthy message was posted on Twitter by Aly Khan Satchu, a verified user, giving the content more visibility and reach.
In January 2021, a photo of boxes labeled ‘Remdesivir for Injection’ which has a list of African countries marked as ‘Not for distribution in the US, CANADA or EU’ showed up on social media and gained traction. This was around the time that several studies on the efficacy of redeliver in reducing the severity of COVID-19 infection. The misleading post was shared on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, with some posts claiming that the drug was meant to wipe out Africans. This information was debunked by Piga Firimbi, an online fact-checking site, which indicated that the drug was not a COVID-19 vaccine. This was also confirmed on a Twitter post by Cipla, the manufacturer of the drug shown in the photo.
In May 2021, another misleading message that was widely shared on WhatsApp claimed that Luc Montagnier, a French virologist, had stated that those who have received the Covid-19 vaccine would die within 2 years. A link attached to this WhatsApp post refuted the claims that Luc Montagnier made such a statement through an article on (Life Site News).
It is difficult to decipher whether a well-crafted sensational message is false if one does not have the skills. Nina says, “I innocently shared information not knowing it was false. I was not even aware that people can take their time to try and manipulate others through such sensitive information. At least now I know better. I will read and verify before I share.”
Just like Nina, other Kenyans are also contributing to misinformation about COVID-19. This is a call to you who is reading this: Be different. For whatever information you read, hear or watch, first, verify it then decide if it is worth sharing. Some tips on how to verify information include consulting professionals on the subject matter, following and consulting fact-checking sites like Piga Firimbi and Pesa Check, and attending training on how to identify false information. One step at a time will take us a long way in saving the lives and health of our citizens by eradicating misinformation about COVID-19.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) program, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.