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Addressing misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa


Isaac Olufadewa is a ONE Champion, medical doctor, and the executive director of Slum and Rural Health Initiative. 

I vividly recall the fear in my 85-year-old grandmother’s voice when we talked in her living room about the novel coronavirus in early March. She was confused and didn’t understand  the COVID-19 pandemic. She was drowning in the overwhelming ocean of information largely in the world’s major languages such as English and French.

As a medical doctor and adept communicator, I sat her down and explained more about the novel coronavirus to her in simple terms solely in our local language (Yoruba). Her face lit up as  for the first time in weeks, she was drinking from the fountain of wisdom. She understood what was going on.

I saw the magic of connection work through simplifying and translating healthcare messages to her in a way that established trust and inspired hope. However, billions of people who do not speak or understand English or French well (like my grandmother) do not have a healthcare professional in their family that understands their native language well.

This means  billions of people are marginalized and left out of the conversation. They become ‘silent observers’ and they feel powerless. Like a drowning man, they will hang on to any piece of an object (or misinformation) out there – making them easy recruits for political propaganda agenda, health misinformation advocates, and conspiracy theorists.

Some hours after leaving my grandmother’s place a light bulb lit in my head. What if the health nongovernmental organization that I founded, Slum and Rural Health Initiative, simplified and translated evidence-based messages from the World Health Organization into over 100 local languages? And yes, we are almost there!

Slum and Rural Health Initiative is changing the game of pandemic communication by translating public health messages during this uncertain time to almost 80 languages. Our empowering public health infographics have been shared on social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook.

Through a bold and seemingly simple initiative, billions of people who (like my grandmother) do not understand or speak either French or English can now have access to reliable health information about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The price of misinformation

The price that nations pay for a lack of a great public health emergency communication and politicising pandemics are more than running out of ventilators and bed spaces in hospitals. They cause grave losses in trust in the government and many more will even pay the ultimate price.

The HIV/AIDS denialism as a result of the politicisation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa in the early 21st century led to over 340,000 needless deaths in the country. And in Samoa,  a lack of a public health communication led to viral health disinformation that resulted in a drastic reduction in the measles vaccination coverage between 2014 – 2018 experts say that misinformation was the reason for the soaring number of measles cases, which stood at 5,707 new measles cases in January 2020 and led to about 83 preventable measles-related deaths within that same time period.

International bodies and countries must not ‘experiment’ with the future by repeating the painful lesson of history.

How we can build trust

Public health institutions should debunk the latest myth on coronavirus with the enthusiasm they use to post the latest statistics on the number of infections and deaths from the COVID-19 virus. They need to provide positive recovery stories to drive home their point and ensure that they advocate equitable national pandemic relief packages to the people most in need. As a common proverb in Yoruba goes, “eniti ebi npa o ki n gbo iwasu” (translated as “only the man that is not hungry can listen to your message”).

We need more powerful and grassroots movements such as SRHIN’s COVID-19 infographics project to spread health-promoting information and be able to curtail the panic that this uncertain period brings. Many people in Africa and beyond feel hungry, angry, tired, and lonely as a result of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 virus in many vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities. Many businesses have been closed, schools have been shut, and in most places activities have gone to a grinding halt.

I hear stories of people struggling in this new reality. Mrs. Comfort, the petty trader who once sold food to construction workers on the busy street of Lagos, Nigeria, has been sitting at home feeling anxious and hungry as a result of the lockdown for over a month. Her daily income has been taken away from her, and along with it, her peace of mind.

Mr. Themba who is a law student at one of South Africa’s Premier University has been ordered to stay at home and though only his education was interrupted, it seems like his life is also on hold. He is distressed as the events are unfolding and he is more likely to battle depression in the coming weeks as the lockdown continues.

Mr. Musa, a roadside mechanic does not understand English so he is afraid and anxious of the future because he has been misinformed on Covid-19 therefore does not have the right health information on Covid-19.

Now, more than ever, is the time for trust-building between public health organizations and the public. This needs to happen through tailored behaviour change communication messages and community engagement, especially with vulnerable and historically underserved communities such as prisons, internally displaced persons’ camps, urban slums, and rural communities.

Isaac Olufadewa is a ONE Champion, medical doctor and the executive director of Slum and Rural Health Initiative (SRHIN) www.srhin.org. You can reach him on +2348132021189 or [email protected]

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