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What to believe? Tackling infodemic amid coronavirus

Countries' uphill struggle with infodemic

So much information on coronavirus is out there and it's hard to know what is true

By Eunice Kilonzo

Peter Kamau felt overwhelmed when he heard Kenya had reported the first Covid-19 case on March 13. He was in a matatu to town and he felt his body get cold from fear.

He had been following the global news about the outbreak in China. With anxiety, he read of the deaths in Italy, the US and now the dreaded illness was closer to him than before.

A quick Google search and everything spelt doom. He felt the world was ending. He thought about his wife and young children who had probably not heard the news.

He worried even more about his ailing mother in Kirinyaga. From the heaps of information he had read, received on WhatsApp from friends, the elderly were more at risk of death than other age group. He also read that eating raw garlic and bathing with hot water was a treatment against the infection, whose cause and symptoms were not very clear. Cold sweat slid down his back.

“Several thoughts ran through my mind. Do I need to get my mother a face mask or a hand sanitiser, which hospital can she or any of us get tested?” he told HealthyNation.

He added: “Who do I call? How do I confirm this? I remember feeling that I was drowning in this big tsunami of information, but I could not tell what was true or wasn’t.”

Kamau, like many other people in Kenya and globally, was caught in an infodemic — a global epidemic of misinformation. It spread rapidly through social media platforms and other outlets and posed a serious problem for public health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus on February 15 said: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re also fighting an infodemic.”

WHO has partnered with Twitter, Facebook and TikTok in a move to ensure content on these platforms is accurate and helpful. In January, WHO and Google joined forces to further address the misinformation available on Covid-19. Currently, when you search for information on coronavirus on Google, what comes up at the top of the page is from WHO’s SOS alert.

For those who search for ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook, the first result directs web users to their national WHO office’s page.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health has sent text messages, with tips and updates on the infection, so far since the outbreak. Kenyans have also been urged to call 719 or to dial *719# for assistance in case someone suspects he/she has been exposed to the virus. The ministry’s social media pages are vibrant with multimedia information — in English and Kiswahili — on how to keep away the viral infection currently at over 35 cases. Globally, there have been over 500,000 confirmed cases and over 14,000 deaths.

But, Kenyans are also getting up to date information from chat bots available on WhatsApp. One great contact is that of the WHO via +41 79 893 18 92.

The description says: “This service will provide you with the latest information and guidance from WHO on the current outbreak of Covid-19 that was first reported on December 31, 2019.” Once you save the number, you send a message “hi” on WhatsApp and immediately it responds with prompts such as: What would you like to know about coronavirus? Reply with a number (or emoji) at any time to get the latest information on the latest numbers, how to protect yourself, mythbusters, travel advice, news and even how to donate towards the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund to contribute to the WHO-led effort to respond to the pandemic.

Kamau also came across another helpful line of the National Department of Health South Africa +27 60 012 3456 that works in a similar way to that of WHO.

“Correct information is critical. With these numbers and following updates from the Ministry of Health, I am confident that I am getting the official and up to date information on the status of Covid-19 not just in Kenya but globally. I can also forward this information without fear of spreading rumours. It is a huge relief,” he said.

His concerns come in the wake of a warning against spreading rumours and false information on Covid-19 following the arrest by DCI officers of Elijah Kitonyo for what they termed spreading fake news on his Twitter account.

Sylvie Briand, director of Infectious Hazards Management at WHO's Health Emergencies Programme and architect of WHO's strategy to counter the infodemic risk, in an interview with The Lancet (the British Medical Journal) said: “With social media, this phenomenon is amplified. It goes faster and further.”