It is not surprising that we are in Covid-19’s sixth wave. That’s what occurs when the public psyche is based on political emotions rather than the best available data.
Or when the vast public is comfortable with misleading data. As political sentiments shifted toward a ‘new normal’, public health precautions were disregarded. We claimed that Covid-19 was no longer a threat.
Being a country of social media, we became resistant to the inconveniences of expert advice. We found on Twitter and Facebook “a public health security”… and a “cure”, but one that’s worse than the disease. We rejected scientific truth and conflated misinformation with information. Every opinion, amplified by Kenyans On Twitter, assumed the status of an expert opinion and the character of truth, faking parity in reporting.
Meanwhile, the virus spread, marked by spontaneously high incidence rates and hospitalisations. We disregarded experts’ warnings about the impending emergence of a variant that was significantly more contagious.
It was akin to a ‘public show’ of stopping an antibiotic treatment at the first indication of symptom relief, we engaged in a flashy public show. I have a friend who believes in the conspiracies promoted by an anti-vaccination movement that started sowing nebulous narratives against the Covid-19 vaccine development as early as 2019.
A pastor also sensationally asserted that a 2015 PhD thesis entitled, ‘A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccine policy’, which stoked ire against the WHO vaccination recommendations, was accurate. But even as it proved to be the dispensary for the worst of all medicines for the worst of all social diseases, history shows this isn’t the first time the Internet has threatened public health.
For decades, many people have alleged that the HIV epidemic was a US government ‘project’, and that the Center for Disease Control was complicit in it. Netizens — and a popular church - regard immunization as the cause of autism. The reality is that Covid-19 was a novel disease. It arrived with complex science. We were given a dizzying assortment of graphs, statistics, and proposed treatment.
But does that justify why we would rather consume simple and reassuring data than engage with that which is difficult to ‘see’ and requires behavioural changes? No! Numerous examples illustrate what happens when the general public consumes the exaggerated claims offered online.
Although it gives temporary security and tranquility, misinformation diminishes public health’s resolve and reduces a nation’s intellectual rigour.
A system of science literacy and education centered on growing frontal circuitry to support the process of reasoning is necessary for achieving a healthy democracy. The practice of medicine is at the center of issues and conflicts pertaining to health and the truth. When science wins, everyone wins.
Mr Onyango is a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected]