By Abdullahi Tsanni (Lead Writer)
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID — 19 a global pandemic on 11 March, 2020, Dr. Mohammed Auwal Ibrahim, a Nigerian scientist, was in his lab at the National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Tsukuba, Japan. His relatives in Kano — at the time, the state with the second-highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria — sent him a WhatsApp video that had gone viral and was circulating in Hausa language. In the video, a popular social media figure in northern Nigeria, Haruna Salisu alias Chizo Germany, was filmed touting the use of shea butter as a cure for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The video had close to 7,000 views on Instagram.
In response, Dr. Ibrahim wrote an article published on the African Science Literacy Network`s (ASLN) website debunking the claims in the video as false. He wrote: “Misinformation such as claims that the use of shea butter can cure the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) could have a profound negative consequence on the effectiveness of preventing the spread of COVID-19, particularly in our local communities.”
Dr. Ibrahim is a fellow of the ASLN, a Wellcome Trust-funded initiative that supports accurate dissemination of scientific information and enhancing public understanding of science in Nigeria. Founded in 2019, with a network of about 70 scientists and journalists from across the Nigerian federation, the initiative is working with scientists and journalists to fight the spread of COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria using social media platforms, online webinars and articles in local languages, according to its founder Dr. Mahmoud Bukar Maina, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, UK.
Dr. Maina said that misinformation about COVID-19 is spread widely across Nigeria. It varies across regions, sociocultural groups and literacy levels. He observed that one major piece of misinformation circulating in northern Nigeria is the belief that COVID-19 is an engineered virus aimed at depopulating the world, especially regions with high birth rates, such as northern Nigeria, a potentially dangerous belief. Dr. Maina added that this false belief poses a huge threat to COVID-19 interventions, such as drugs and vaccines currently being developed by scientists.
‘Social media spreads false information about COVID — 19’
In the global race to understand the new coronavirus outbreak, a lot of misinformation has spread rapidly worldwide, including on social media. In Nigeria, misinformation includes the belief that the coronavirus cannot survive in hot weather, as well as many unproven and ineffective “cures”, including drinking alcohol, inhaling steam from a mixture of the eucalyptus ointment popularly known as Robb and hot water, and taking a high dose of the antimalarial drug chloroquine. These and other unverified claims could have potentially drastic and sometimes fatal consequences. They can hamper efforts of public health practitioners in containing the spread of COVID-19 and result in the general public’s distrust about science.
According to a GeoPoll report on coronavirus that examined the awareness level, sources of information and knowledge of coronavirus among 1,350 people in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, social media channels such as WhatsApp were particularly active in spreading false information on COVID–19 remedies.
As indicated in the March 2020 report, social media is the most common source of information for coronavirus among the populations studied, with 47% stating that social media is one of their primary information sources, followed by TV and radio, respectively. In addition, about 75% of the survey participants said they had seen information on WhatsApp regarding coronavirus, and there was skepticism around this information, with 66% rating it ‘somewhat truthful’ compared to 20% who thought information seen on WhatsApp was ‘completely truthful.’
A joint fight: Scientists and journalists team up to fight coronavirus misinformation
The low levels of health literacy and exposure to scientific knowledge in Nigeria, has made messaging and communication about COVID-19 harder. The public does not, to a large extent, understand the science behind the virus’s transmission. Therefore, many people find it difficult to identify credible evidence-based scientific information or to sort through messages on COVID-19, which are often published in languages that are not their mother tongue. Preventive measures such as social distancing has largely come in foreign terms without translations into local languages. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and partners have recognized that these gaps exist and have begun disseminating content in local languages to the different states.
Recognising the critical need for accurate information in local languages, AfricArXiv, a non-profit focused on fostering research and enhancing the visibility of scientists in Africa, partnered with the ASLN to develop reports and informational videos on COVID-19 in several Nigerian languages, including Gbagyi, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, Urhobo, and sign language, to help address misinformation issues. Most recently, AfricArXiv launched a multilingual Chatbot that can be accessed on its website and provides information about COVID-19 symptoms and guidance, in case of infection.
In late March 2020, Dr. Abubakar Sadeeq Adamu, a scientist at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, teamed up with journalist Salim Ashir Mahuta of Jakadiya Radio and TV, to investigate COVID-19 misinformation in Katsina — a predominantly Hausa state in northwestern Nigeria — under the ASLN and AfricArXiv Initiative. The duo produced a video report in Hausa language that was aired on Radio and TV and circulated on social media platforms including WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The report had close to 40,000 views on Facebook, at last check.
Dr. Abubakar Adamu observed that many people lacked knowledge about the new coronavirus. He understood that lack of communication in local languages was a big threat to efforts in curbing the spread COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria. Likewise, he was familiar with constraints in the implementation of preventive measures such as social distancing due to religious beliefs and sociocultural factors. Hence, he said, scientists must be at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 misinformation, adding that the use of local languages to communicate preventive measures and raise awareness among communities was just as important as working in the lab to develop vaccines or drugs against COVID-19.
The need to communicate with hard to reach areas
COVID–19 misinformation is rampant among people living in local communities, but many of these communities are hard-to-reach and people there do not have or have limited access to the internet including social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels. Hence, there`s a need for door-to-door community outreach and sensitization campaigns in local communities — while respecting social distancing. “Our audience are usually those using social media and have access to the internet to read articles produced by our fellows online. Consequently, we are unable to reach many local communities who may have some of the worst misconceptions about COVID-19. This, however, could be addressed with increased funding to support our fellows to visit those communities and to have increased access to radio programmes that disseminate to some of those local communities,” noted Dr. Maina.
With an estimated population of more than 200 million people and over 500 spoken languages in Nigeria, the use of local languages is crucial in debunking misinformation on COVID-19 and creating awareness about the disease. Scientists also have a critical role in enhancing the general public’s understanding on coronavirus and encouraging the use of simple preventive measures, including social distancing and handwashing. On the other hand, governments at Federal and State level must continue to ensure that national awareness campaigns on COVID-19 and preventive measures are well communicated in local languages, particularly within communities where these languages are mostly spoken.
Have you seen an effective use of local language to debunk COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria? We want to see it too! Share with us on our social media platforms, @nighealthwatch on Twitter and @nigeriahealthwatch on Facebook and Instagram.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a freelance science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria. He writes for science and development focused international media publications including Nature and African Newspage. He holds a B.Sc. in biochemistry and works voluntarily at Science Communication Hub Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni