Wednesday, December 8, 2021
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COVID-19: The misinformation bubble threatening fight against global pandemic

“All vaccinated people will die within two years”

That is the terse but alarming introduction to a widely circulated WhatsApp message claiming Nobel Prize winning virologist Luc Montagnier confirmed that there is “no chance of survival” for people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“There is no hope and no treatment for those who have been vaccinated already. We must be prepared to incinerate the bodies,” the viral post reads in part.

But the message, falsely attributed to Montagnier — who has made anti-vaccination comments in the past — is misleading and the claims  are not backed by any science or data.

A screenshot of the WhatsApp message claiming falsely that vaccinated people will die within two years.

Such misinformation, always attributed to prominent figures to earn credence, has plagued the cyberspace and held back the fight against the pandemic.

The misleading information has ridden on an impressive internet penetration across Kenya and circulated via social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

As with developed nations, the misinformation triggered panic reactions including hoarding of essential goods and drugs.

Even before Kenyan authorities announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case more than a year ago, videos and images fanning misinformation spread. 

Empty grocery shops, long queues at checkout counters and the all-too-familiar snatched-up rolls of toilet paper are among the most typical photos and videos that permeated the internet.

In mid-March 2020, people flocked shops and supermarkets across the country to stock up before being ‘quarantined’ — grabbing whatever they believed necessary for survival.

Kenyans line up at Quickmart supermarket in Nairobi a day after the first coronavirus case was announced in the country. PHOTO: Crime_KE/Twitter

The deluge of misinformation took fact-checkers to task.

Acclaimed fact-checking group Africa Check set up a live guide on coronavirus fact checks at the onset of the pandemic and has debunked tens of fake claims.

According to Africa Check, misinformation around the country has spread in various forms, including hoaxes, falsified content, misleading claims, and scams. Most of the information points towards cures and vaccines. The ecosystem of false information has also proved effective by adding to the believability of the claims.

Screengrabs of some of the misinformation and disinformation that had a great impact in Kenya.
Debunking COVID-19 myths

One recent claim was on April 24, 2021. The Kenyan Chief Administrative Secretary for Health remarked that the country was at position seven in terms of vaccination globally.

“Right now, we are number seven on the leaderboard, and we intend to climb that leaderboard,” Mercy Mwangangi said at a televised press briefing.

This is false. Available data shows that Kenya, although relatively ahead of its East African neighbours, has vaccinated less than 2% of its population. 

A video of the misleading claim has at the time of publication been watched by 162,000 people on Twitter and Facebook.

By the time it was shared, Kenya had vaccinated an ordinary 1.3 people per 100 against a high average of 23 per 100 in the world. As of April 24, 2021, the top 10 countries had vaccinated between 47 and 121 people per 100, according to the Our World in Data coronavirus vaccinations tracker.

According to Dr Subiri Obwogo, a consultant in health policy and systems strengthening, leadership attitudes and perceptions matter a lot in any pandemic.

“Having a strong health care system counts just as much as a country’s leader’s perceptions in combating a pandemic. As we often say, the benefit of good information isn’t knowledge; its action,” said Dr Obwogo, who also sits at the advisory team of the government’s response to Covid-19 in informal settlements.

The misinformation has served to stroke fear than encourage proper health guidelines. After the first case was confirmed in Kenya, an image of coffins with rosses atop went viral in country.

Claiming to have been shot in Italy, it warned Kenya to avert a similar situation.

However, a quick image reverse search using TinEye backdates the photo to September 28, 2015. The photograph taken by AFP photographer Alberto Pizzoli shows coffins of victims seen in a hangar of Lampedusa airport on October 5, 2013, after a boat with migrants sank, killing more than a hundred people.

A screengrab of a Google Reverse Search of an image widely spread in Kenya to depict deaths caused by COVID-19 in Italy.

As the coronavirus pandemic enters its second year, many people have grown accustomed to coronavirus statistics, and record-breaking case counts. The internet appeals across the country show the severity of the problem and personalize it by focusing on people’s struggle for help – a potent reminder that the situation is far from over.

This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, 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.


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