Barely a year into COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria like every other countries of the world suffered what the World Health Organisation described as ‘infodemic’ – an overabundance of information (accurate or not) that spreads alongside a disease outbreak.
The misinformation ranges from disbelieving the threat of COVID-19, politicisation to conspiracy theories that vaccines could alter human DNA as well as reduce fertility in women.
Sadly, digital age has proven to be useful in information dissemination but statistics show that in the first three months in 2020, about 6,000 people were hospitalised and 800 died globally due to misinformation related to COVID-19.
EVen today, experts fear that the digital age infodemics could bring about uncertainty that can fuel distrust and lead to preventable deaths from COVID-19.
The case of Ms. Angela Uchechi, aptly describes the situation. For Angela and her friends, COVID-19 is a scam and a ploy to depopulate Nigeria and other African countries. Angela, a graduate never hides her disbelief of COVID-19 vaccination.
She tells whoever cares to listen that she can only accept vaccines after having all her children. Unfortunately, Angela is yet to be married and her position is common among other unmarried women across the country.
“I cannot take this vaccine now until I have children. I have read a lot of stories about the vaccine and how it works. I am still not convinced about the whole drama,” she told Good Health Weekly.
Even as the government and partners rally round to battle the challenges posed by the pandemic and the emerging variants as well as procure vaccines, it is an uphill task dismissing the series of fears, anxiety, and unproven measures in the wake of misconceptions.
Many Nigerians vow not to be vaccinated because it is either a ploy to depopulate the country or some other satanic agenda.
In the views of the Vice Chancellor, Federal University, Kashere, Gombe State, Prof. Umaru A. Pate, the pandemic has profoundly rendered various societies tense, challenged and even insecure, heightened by uncertainties and boundless flow of information because of developments in ICTs, populism politics, pervasive poverty, rise of ethno-religious tensions, and general decline in standards and values, etc
He said truth has been under attack from factories of fake news, agents of disinformation and intense weaponisation of information characterised by intensification of disinformation, hate and dangerous speech.
According to Pate, all these are fighting back the efforts of governments across the world is putting in to check the spread of the virus.
Expressing worry on the prevalence and consequences of misuse of the digital, online and social media, he said COVID-19 vaccines have gone through scientific stages of clinical trials and safety reviews.
Pate in his presentation titled: ‘Debunking rumours and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccine,’ said, it is not true that people with underlying conditions should not be vaccinated.
Fake news major obstacle to combating COVID-19 —Ifeanyi
Speaking, former National Secretary of the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria, AMLSN, Dr Casmier Ifeanyi who blamed the COVID-19 non-pharmaceutical interventions or protocols on the impact of unbridled fake news acknowledged that the impact of fake news on the COVID-19 response has been far-reaching across the globe.
Regretting that fake news propagation continues to go unchecked and unregulated in many parts of the world, he said fake news is a major obstacle to the efforts at combating COVID-19 as well as a public health challenge to the response strategy put in place by health authorities and governments.
“Even in Nigeria, we have very highly influential persons who hold unscientific opinions, and unfounded perspectives about the COVID-19 pandemic including the COVID-19 vaccines that are rolled out to prevent or mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What will you say to a lay man in Nigeria to convince him or her about the use of facemask when a Medical doctor in Oregon, USA, was willing and ready to be stripped off his license to practice Medicine instead of wearing a face mask?
“The Oregon doctor holds and propagates the view that those who wear facemask are prone to carbon monoxide poisoning and so he would never wear facemask.
“Isn’t that fake news from an educated and supposedly informed and qualified medical practitioner?
“So, you can see, fake news about COVID-19 is deeply entrenched and is being propagated from very many unexpected quarter.
“Fake news is but a menace to the COVID-19 challenge. We currently have apathy by the populace who are very reluctant to come out and take the COVID-19 vaccine even when it is free and available.
“This can largely be blamed on the influence of the propagators of fake news in Nigeria.
Continuing, he said not enough information is being put out there even now that people are being administered a nucleic acid based vaccine in Nigeria.
“So, why won’t there be vaccine apathy? Nobody has taken the pain and responsibility to consistently give out ample information or good enough messages aimed at educating the people on the metabolic or elimination pathway of nucleic acid adjuvant vaccine.
“We must regularly put out the right and adequate information not only about the benefits of taking the vaccine but also the drawbacks of taking the vaccines. That is the whole essence of Risk Communication in public health emergencies and mitigations.
“We must avoid coercing people, it strengthens fake news. People must be made to understand the concept of benefit outweighing risk as the basis for any medical intervention including vaccines.
“For COVID-19 vaccine, Nigerians must be encouraged to take the vaccine because the benefits outweigh the risks.
“Fake news accentuated by trust deficit has become deeply imbibed by the ordinary Nigerians and that is the reason we are struggling with getting the people to comply with advisories. “
Ifeanyi stressed the need for government agencies and social media influencers to adequately mobilise to make available in the public space the right information and factsheets based on frequently asked questions as answers and fake news counters.
“ The current approach adopted by government towards addressing the impact of fake news is inadequate and inappropriate, and as such may not get us the desired result.
It is not about sanctions. It should be more about giving out timely information; it is also about government being more responsive and responsible.
“Sanctions as is the case in Edo state for civil servants and visitors to government offices and secretariat will not always get the best of results.
“If agencies of government, like the Federal Ministry of Information, Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, the National Orientation Agency, Media houses and all such other related bodies synergies their efforts, they can mobilise and activate young people who are social media-savvy to use them to propagate a counters to the fake news out there.
Vaccine hesitancy uncalled for — Akintayo
Speaking on the safety of the vaccines, former president of the Pharmaceutical society of Nigeria, PSN, Pharm. Akintayo Olumide argued that vaccines, biologicals and drugs are generally safe when use and handling are responsible and lawful. He noted that vaccine hesitancy defies rational logic and is uncalled for.
Akintayo said hesitancy causes damaging propaganda of extensive dimensions said it could become an incentive for faster and wide spread fatalities.
“If people refuse to be immunised on a general note, they are extremely susceptible to infections.
“Global reports confirm now that less than 1 percent of those who have received vaccination against COVID-19 are afflicted in recent months.
“Even in these few instances they recover from the infection much faster on a scale of relativity.”
Stating that the coverage rate for COVID-19 vaccination was accelerated in climes like the United States because Community Pharmacists are involved said: “80 per cent of immunisation is actually handled in the Pharmacies in that clime.
Noting that the British PM Johnson publicly acknowledged the special roles of Community Pharmacists in managing the spread and incidence of COVID-19 in the UK, he disclosed that the UK actually approved £300 million to Community Pharmacists to sustain their competence in the UK.
“The Nigerian government has not learnt from these experiences to dismantle the portals of restrictions in our sick health system.
Government contemplates a Health reform which should be about a departure from the status quo but insists that the old methodology must prevail.
Moving forward Pharmacists and indeed every member of the health value chain must be allowed to be a worthy and fruitful stakeholder