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Home / Health & Science

Has social media helped curb the spread of Covid-19?

HEALTH & SCIENCEBy BELDEEN WALIAULA | Wed,Jun 30 2021 21:14:15 EAT
By BELDEEN WALIAULA | Wed,Jun 30 2021 21:14:15 EAT

As COVID-19 evolves, misinformation around the pandemic has also evolved. Social media has played a role to combat misinformation about the coronavirus, vaccines, and related issues.

Even though social media has been used to improve people's knowledge about the virus, it has also misinformed them in equal measure.

Jane Rose, 34 years of age working in a public relations firm in Nairobi, says when COVID-19 started, the news was scary that she had to boycott going to work to avoid meeting with people.

Covid 19 Time Series

 

Social media posts that were doing rounds that people were collapsing and dying due to covid increased her fear even more. This made her life unbearable that she had to stay in the house alone. This resulted in loneliness, withdrawal from people and later she started battling depression. 

She is not alone, scary images from the COVID-19 situation in Italy and India created a state of anxiety in Kenya. Some were scared but some thought that COVID-19 does not severely affect black people. However, when COVID-19 cases started to be reported in Africa there were many tweeps calling on Africans to take caution before the situation gets worse.

Misinformation around sensitive health topics such as vaccines is dangerous, as it can keep people from getting life-saving treatment. Flagging these falsehoods does not necessarily end the problem, because there is also a need to offer the right information to counter this misinformation.

According to Mwangi Maina, a fact-checker and a journalist at Standard Group Media, social media has been a relief when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus as Doctors and health experts came out to educate people, demystify information, and just educate the masses. 

“An example is Dr.Githinji Gitahi, CEO of Amref Health Africa and goes by the Twitter handle @Daktari001 has been posting videos explaining how the Kenyan COVID-19 curve looks like. He even goes ahead to explain how vaccines work. Such experts have been a go-to place for many Kenyans who sought credible information.” Says Maina

According to Mwangi, some bad actors have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread false information with the aim of gaining financially.

“The situation is half-half, every side takes half. Social media has partially helped to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but it has also heavily impacted the spread of COVID-19. Some users online have managed to peddle rumours and unverified information” Says Maina

According to Alphonse Shiundu, the Kenya editor of Africa Check, a fact-checking platform, social media platforms have been a useful addition to the arsenal that people have used to get the correct information about COVID-19. 

“We have seen organizations, scientists and doctors in different African countries taking the time to explain to people how to keep safe from the virus, the proper way to wear a mask, why wearing a mask is important, what to do to get better if you contract the virus, and how to keep your loved ones safe”,  Shiundu said.

Social media platforms have also been useful in dealing with COVID-19, given that it is a global pandemic that needs a quick global response. The data obtained from these platforms is invaluable to determine how to respond appropriately to the false information

“While a lot of misinformation has also travelled far and wide on these platforms, what we have realized is that the platforms have taken proactive steps to prevent the spread of false information while promoting the debunking of COVID-19 misinformation, sometimes deleting false posts such as those spreading false cures, or miracle diets to keep the coronavirus at bay”, adds Shiundu

How misinformation spreads in Kenya

A lot of misinformation in Kenya travels through Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. This is where most people are, or through which they get the information. 

False information manifests itself in various ways, including fabricated advice from a nameless or non-existent doctor in a non-existent hospital, made-up images of newspaper front pages misleading the public about the extent of the disease, and images, videos and audio clips asking people to take certain actions to protect themselves that are not medically sound. 

Sometimes, it is just government officials spreading unverified information because they are not experts. Although they may be authority figures, they could misrepresent the evidence or medical advice for political or personal reasons like the late president John Magufuli of Tanzania. During his tenure, he advised his people to not heed to scientists claiming the existence of covid 19 and even stopped laboratories in Tanzania from conducting covid 19 tests

How Kenyans can spot fake news

For Kenyans to spot misinformation, the trick is in asking the right questions to vet the information you see related to COVID-19. First, who said it, and what is their proof?  Is the person claiming a position to know what they are talking about, and is their proof credible? What do the experts say? 

“Kenyans have to remember that if something is going viral, in a way that triggers their emotions, joy, sadness, anger, terror, anxiety, they have to verify before they share. In short, if it is too good to be true, perhaps it is,” Shiundu says.

As the editor of Africa Check, Shiundu adds that the most notorious form of misinformation has been false cures and diets, ranging from drinking alcohol to the lemon-ginger-honey concoction to steam therapy to drinking or taking a shower in hot water. 

“We fact-checked all these claims and vetted them for accuracy. We also conducted media and digital training for journalists and civil society to inculcate the culture of fact-checking among these important cadres.”

The public is also advised to use available platforms of health research institutions to get credible information

If wrong information cannot be acted upon, lives can easily be lost. Misinformation is a powerfully destructive force in this era of global communication because one false idea can spread instantly to many vulnerable ears. The World Health Organization says approximately more than six thousand people were adversely affected as a result of exposure to misinformation in the early months of 2020.

“In the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 6 000 people around the globe were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation, recent research suggests. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19,” reads WHO Website

With this, the World Health Organization has taken upon itself to fight COVID-19 by using its website and social media platforms

The internet has become the greatest source of health information worldwide due to the use of a huge number of mobile devices and easy and low-cost connectivity with the internet across the world

There are 11 million social media users in Kenya as of January 2021, a number that calls for demystifying COVID-19 infodemics, especially to those who still think that coronavirus is a phenomenon and not real.

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