As COVID-19 spreads, so do fake news, conspiracy theories and doctored pictures and videos. Left unchecked, most of it is harmful and could lead to people ultimately losing their lives
Aissata Diop, a Senegalese mother of four, living in Pikine on the outskirts of the capital city Dakar, had long heard that consuming garlic and lemon could have health benefits.
So, when her friend, Ramatou, displayed a message on her phone saying that drinking a daily bowl of boiled garlic and lemon could keep people from contracting COVID-19, Aissata wasted no time stocking up on her daily market run.
Charles Nagbe, a Liberian carpenter plying his trade in Treichville, a southern neighborhood of Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire was also intent on not getting infected. He remembered some information he came across online saying that rinsing the mouth with or swallowing a 'reasonable' quantity of liquor can kill the virus before it infects the body.
Unable to afford pricey imported liquors, Charles sent for Koutoukou, a local brew with a very high level of alcohol content distilled from palm wine.
Both Aissata and Charles believed they would be spared COVID-19.
While drinking a garlic and lemon mixture or limited amounts of alcohol may not be harmful to the human body, they provide a false sense of protection against the virus.
Aissata and Charles are not alone. Desperate to protect themselves from infection and for a cure, people around the world are trying all sorts of herbal or chemical concoctions and prescription pills such as chloroquine.
Yet, these are just a tiny sample of the misleading or outright false bits of information, including hoaxes and myths, going around since the onset of COVID-19.
To stem the tide of misinformation, including in African countries, several initiatives by the United Nations, international news organizations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Agence France Press (AFP), nonprofits such as Africa Check and others are offering tools to provide credible information and to help people check the reliability of COVID-19-related information.
Across the continent, artists and community activists are also joining the fight against misinformation.
"We're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) remarked earlier this year, referring to fake news that, he said, spreads faster and more easily than the virus.
Drawing from the words "information" and "epidemic," the word "infodemic", according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, describes "a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease".
From the origins of the virus, to how to avoid catching it, to how it propagates, and how to cure it, unproven and misleading theories abound, making the current infodemic a serious obstacle to the efforts being made to stop the spread of COVID-19, the WHO warns.
Spreading online, through messaging apps and from one person to another, misinformation often operates through digital tools that generate and propagate false stories stitched together from altered video, pictures or sound.
One of these stories so troubled Ms. Yemisi Adegoke, a Lagos-based BBC reporter, that it prompted her to suggest a more systematic way for the broadcaster to tackle the infodemic with its listeners in Africa. She is now one of the producers of the news organization's COVID-19 misinformation hub, a centralized online space where people can check whether viral information is credible or not.
"I worked on a story about a man whose photo was used in a social media post. It was said that he picked up Nigeria's first COVID-19 case at the airport and had driven him from Lagos to a neighboring state," Ms. Adegoke remembers.
As the story went virals. Adegoke told Africa Renewal in a telephone interview, she "tracked him down" and found out that although the man pictured in the story was indeed a cab driver "he had not been to Lagos in three years."
Yet, the rumour had spread all over the internet and through messaging applications, and as a result, the man had received death threats.
As shown by the Nigerian cab driver story, misinformation about COVID-19 can sometimes be built on some measure of truth or fact.
An April 2020 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom found that little information was usually fabricated entirely.
The study sampled 225 that have been proven by fact-checkers to be false or misleading pieces of information in English published all around the world from January to March 2020 and noticed that more than half (59%) was existing information that was either "spun, twisted, recontextualized, or reworked," the study pointed out; making it often difficult to separate lies from truths.
'Verified' - a UN initiative
To help people gain access to credible information, in May the UN Secretary-General launched 'Verified', an email and social media initiative that invites people to register and become "information volunteers" tasked with dissemination of trusted and UN-verified content.
The campaign provides a daily feed of easy-to-share simple messages aimed at countering falsehoods or filling critical information gaps. Subscribers receive content in their inbox and are encouraged to pass it along including via their Facebook and other social media accounts.
On 27 July 2020 Verified shared a roundup from the previous week on debunking false claims about vaccine trials, fake cures and an anti-mask group removed from Facebook "for spreading misinformation about coronavirus," the email reads.
#DontGoViral - Artists join in
Another initiative to help fight COVID-19 misinformation in Africa is the UN Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) #DontGoViral campaign that engages African artists.
Started in April 2020, #DontGoViral crowdsources creative content that addresses the need for culturally relevant, open-sourced information about COVID-19 in local languages.
Ugandan musician and member of parliament, Bobi Wine openly licensed his hit song "Corona Virus Alert" for the launch of the campaign and encouraged other artists to contribute.
"The bad news is everyone is a potential victim/But the good news is that everyone is a potential solution/Sensitize the masses to sanitize/Keep a social distance and quarantine/The coronavirus is sweeping over mankind/Everybody must be alert... " Bobi Wine and his collaborator Nubian Li sing on their catchy dancehall-inspired track.
To date, #DontGoViral is reported to have received more that 500 submissions from all over the continent, with a playlist maintained and updated on YouTube.
The content is as varied in its countries of origin as it is in creative categories, with contributions including music, poetry, paintings and multimedia presentation.
From Liberia, George Weah, the country's president is featured fronting a youth band and singing a slow tempo gospel-inspired song titled "Let's Stand Together To Fight Corona."
From Malawi, the Vilipanganga Poetry Movement has used poetry to address COVID-19 myths and conspiracy theories while sharing information about mitigation and containment measures.
In Nigeria, the Proshare Foundation turned to animated stories to highlight modes of virus transmission.
"The bad news is everyone is a potential victim/But the good news is that everyone is a potential solution," Bobby Wine and Nubian Li sung.
After all, "we cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate," Secretary-General Guterres said at the launch of "Verified".