Sierra Leone in deadly fight against Covid-19 misinformation

One of Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 ambassadors, Sheku Putka Kamara

FREETOWN — The fight against Covid-19 misinformation and disinformation has a morbid feel in Sierra Leone where authorities are flagging it as a “life-or-death” issue in slogans designed to warn the population.

“If you are not sure of what you are sharing, do not share. If you cannot validate the authenticity of the information, do not share because when you misinform people, you could misinform a whole generation.”

This is the advice of one of Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 ambassadors, Sheku Putka Kamara.

A media consultant and lecturer, Kamara is concerned at the level of misinformation and “fake news” surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic especially as it has hindered efforts to fight the virus’s spread.

He is not alone. The editor of Politico Newspaper Sierra Leone, Mabinty Magdalene Kamara, highlighted the sad story of a fellow journalist whose wife died from a heart attack last year after panicking over a fake report that her child was among students killed at a school after getting a Covid-19 vaccine.

Fear of the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a global wave of misinformation and disinformation fueling distrust in efforts by many governments to address the health crisis.

As Sierra Leone confirmed its first COVID-19 case, certain groups of individuals denied the existence of the virus and proclaimed it a hoax.

A now-infamous video on vaccination, alleging that American billionaire Bill Gates planned to kill three billion Africans, and another claim that vaccines caused impotence, have cemented doubts in a large segment of Sierra Leone about the existence of COVID-19, and the effectiveness of vaccines.

Verifying with experts

Mabinty Magdalene Kamara said her journalists make it a point to verify every piece of information with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation with whom they work closely, to verify information on vaccines developed to fight the pandemic.

Even before Sierra Leone received its first consignment of the COVID-19 vaccines, she said, some people had already started sowing misinformation about their side effects.

“So, when the vaccines were in the country, people were hesitant about its safety,” she said.

“Our responsibility to the public is to give out the right and correct information. So, we will make sure that we verify (all) information. We have been able to fact check every (piece of) information so as not to fall into the hands of fake news vendors.”

Neighbour Liberia faces the same problem

In neighbouring Liberia, which is facing similar problems, Alpha Daffae Senkpeni has been working on “ Rumour Tracking / Response” since the beginning of the pandemic. Senkpeni is executive director of the Local Voices Media Network, a national news website.

From the onset of Ebola Virus diseases in 2014–2015 to this present COVID-19 pandemic, he said, Liberians usually spread fake news on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Highlighting the rumours circulating in Liberia, Senkpeni said: “The people believed that when someone has COVID-19, she or he will survive. Some believe that the COVID-19 vaccine is there to reduce the population of black people.”

“Misinformation always has a negative impact on public health. In fact, it hinders the health messages designed to educate the public,” he said.

Vaccine hesitancy

Sierra Leone’s ministry of health data supports the case of vaccine hesitancy.

Out of 338,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines that Sierra Leone has received so far, it has used 64,960 doses. That is, 58,250 of the total population [7,000,000] of Sierra Leone that received the first dose representing 100%, only 6,716 people have received the second dose — that is, fewer than 1 in every 1,000 Sierra Leoneans are fully vaccinated, according to data produced on May 13 by the CH/EPI programme under Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

Misinformation overload

Ambassador Kamara said in Sierra Leone there were hundreds, if not thousands, of misinformation-related messages circulating on social media, questioning the existence of Covid-19 and undermining the fight against the pandemic.

“This disturbs the corona response”.

Kamara decried a tendency to deliberately post and share fake news on social media that those vaccines would not protect someone from Coronavirus diseases, noting that the sources of these fake messages vary.

Speaking on how misinformation affected their work as ambassadors, he said that the denial and vaccine hesitancy was hindering their work and all other frontline workers.

“So, at the end of the day, it is about ensuring that we place the country first, but when we bring party lines into the fight against COVID-19 it becomes a problem just like during the Ebola Virus crisis.”

Kamara explained: “An understanding of the political culture in Sierra Leone will tell you that we have two major political parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and All People’s Congress (APC) party. During the Ebola crisis, when we had the APC party in governance, it was alleged or claimed that they (APC) brought the Ebola Virus to make money. Now that we have the SLPP in governance, it is also alleged that they have brought the COVID-19 to make money.”

As ambassadors, he said, it is their responsibility to correct the wrong whenever someone posts misleading content on social media.

He urged party leaders to redouble their efforts in sensitising people to know that the pandemic is not partisan to counter individuals who feel that only members of the ruling government get vaccinated.

“We have to change that narrative because, at the end of the day, COVID-19 is not only affecting SLPP or APC. There must be a paradigm shift to ensure that everyone comes on board.”

While Covid-19 vaccination was not mandatory, Kamara said he was encouraging citizens to accept the vaccines. “It’s not about the political party line, it’s about the health and safety of individuals.”

Continental communication collaboration

Abdel Halim AbdAllah, Crisis Communications Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, said the World Health Organisation had established an Africa Infodemic Response Alliance to counter the wave of fake news on COVID-19. The Alliance — which has links with fact checking organisations — includes some 15 organisations, among them the Africa CDC, WHO Gavi and UNICEF.

“Infodemic” is a new term coined by the WHO to describe the avalanche of information arising out of the pandemic.

“The idea here is that it is not just the misinformation, but also the over-abundance of information that we have to deal with,” AbdAllah said in an interview.

“People are getting too much information and sometimes this information changes at a very rapid pace. There are many legitimate concerns around COVID-19 vaccines and there are a lot of information gaps, uncertainty, misinformation, and disinformation. There are (also) a number of conspiracy theories on the vaccines, and people are questioning how far the vaccines are developed, its reactions and its side effects, among others.”

One of the alliance’s major goals is to ensure that communication is streamlined so that authoritative institutions speak with one voice on the same issue. Fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check, AFP Fact Check, Ghana Facts, Nigeria, and Congo Check, among others, being all members of the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), collaborate to set up a system to respond to misinformation. The fact checking organisations have direct access to WHO experts so that issues are addressed quickly.

AbdAllah said that through the Alliance, Viral Fact Africa had been set up as a social media response to disrupt health misinformation and closing down on information gaps. Content from Viral Fact Africa is visually engaging and packaged in such a way as to effectively compete with the misinformation.

Although there is no fact-checking organisation in Sierra Leone, content produced by the alliance is distributed globally through various agencies.

AbdAllah assured the public that vaccines approved by the WHO are safe and effective and did not cause chronic illnesses or impotence, contrary to some information circulating widely in Sierra Leone.

NOTE:

“This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.”

By Stephen V. Lansana

1/06/2021 ISSUE NO: 8070

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