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Beyond the share button: Fighting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in Nigeria

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By Chibuike ALAGBOSO and Atinuke AKANDE-ALEGBE


VACCINE is one of the most cost-effective ways of preventing diseases. They protect against more than 20 life-threatening diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

With the development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, countries started purchasing and administering vaccine doses to their citizens in December 2020.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a gathering in Germany, in February 2020.

He referred to this as fake news that “spreads faster and more easily than” than the COVID-19 virus itself.

The global health agency said infodemics happened when people were exposed to an excessive amount of information about a problem, which could make it difficult to identify a solution.

“They can spread misinformation, disinformation and rumours during a health emergency. Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people,” said the WHO.

Despite the advancement in developing vaccines, there is still some hesitancy in a country like Nigeria – the most populous black nation in the world.

This analysis explores the role some specific anti-vaccine misinformation has played in Nigeria.

How it started

Through the COVAX facility support, in March 2021, Nigeria received 3.94 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine. COVAX is a coalition which aims to ensure fair and equitable access to effective COVID-19 vaccines, especially for developing countries.

The first dose of the vaccine in Nigeria was administered to a frontline health worker, on March 5, 2021. About a month later, nearly a million eligible Nigerians had been vaccinated with the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Although the first phase of vaccination in Nigeria was targeted at frontline health workers, their supporting staff and strategic leaders, many Nigerians who did not fit into this category were able to visit the vaccination sites to take their first doses.

Nigeria’s dark history with vaccine hesitancy

A household survey conducted by Nigeria Health Watch showed that the spread of misinformation played a huge role in shaping people’s preliminary decision about whether they would take the vaccine or not.

The survey sampled over a thousand respondents across the country using in-depth interviews and focus group discussions. The survey sought to investigate public knowledge, awareness and perceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I heard that America collected the vaccine, some are dying. They gave them COVID-19 vaccine, and some people died at that spot. So, like me, I even said if I see that vaccine, I will run. I would not collect it,” said a female respondent in Niger State, northern Nigeria.

It is important to note that vaccine hesitancy is not new in Nigeria. In 2013, during the polio campaign, five northern Nigerian states boycotted the oral polio vaccine due to rumours that it was unsafe.

Covid-19 vaccine misinformation: Another frontline

A lot of efforts were put into debunking misinformation around COVID-19, including vaccines, even before its administration in Nigeria.

Stakeholders, including the government, health agencies, non-profit organisations, and civil society organisations played important roles in fighting COVID-19 misinformation.

In response, a team of WHO ‘mythbusters’ has worked with search engines and media companies like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Tencent, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and others to counter the spread of rumours around COVID-19.

Healthcare workers are usually referred to as frontline workers during any public health emergency or event of public health concern.

However, in the digital space, another set of frontline workers ensures that harmful information that will undermine the physical efforts of the response are not allowed to spread or spiral out of control.

This can have serious implications, especially when it becomes an infodemic, according to the WHO.

False information can lead to people distrusting public health institutions, rejecting life-saving treatments and in some extreme cases, attacking health workers who are risking their lives to keep them safe.

This makes it even more important for the government and private sector to work together to ensure the right narratives are always amplified. But to efficiently achieve this, it is important to understand the underlying factors surrounding anti-vaccine misinformation circulating.

Influence peddlers and vaccine-related misinformation in Nigeria

While social media users may ignorantly circulate false information within their circles of influence or echo chambers without any malicious intentions, a deeper analysis of the origins of some of this information using open source intelligence tools (OSINT) can reveal more sinister intentions.

These intentions can be financially or politically motivated in some cases.

Gaining a deeper understanding of the sources can help produce more relevant content to counter the false information. This is important because putting out the facts only is not always enough to fight misinformation but rather appealing to the emotions of the content consumers.

Paul Adepoju is the English community manager of nearly 4000 journalists for the International Center for Journalist’s Forum on Global Health Crisis Reporting.

He said because social media users were likely to share information with people they trusted and their other circles of influence, individuals could exploit and spread disinformation for political or financial benefits.

“There can be more to some of the information we share to our family and friends than meets the eye. And when this false information reinforces our own concerns, we tend to take it upon ourselves to amplify the messages,” Adepoju said.

He added that it became even more worrying that influential leaders would always buy into these messages and use their platforms to amplify them. A clear example is popular Nigerian Pastor Chris Oyakhilome’s strong anti-vaccine stance, even after he was fined by the UK government earlier in the year.

A united front in fighting anti-vaccine misinformation

Like never before, the Nigerian health sector had individuals, businesses and organisations supporting the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dispelling misinformation was not left out. In the wake of the pandemic, one of the major organisations in Nigeria that used its platforms to provide accurate information while detecting and dispelling misinformation on the new coronavirus was Africa Check and other fact-checking partners.

Since its inception in 2012, Africa Check has promoted accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa.

“We fact-checked hundreds of COVID-19 misinformation ranging from incorrect claims about the virus; wrong and misleading statistics about infection rate and death toll, conspiracy theories around the existence of the virus and the vaccine, to fake cures. We also trained hundreds of journalists on how to fact-check these claims,” said a researcher and community manager Allwell Okpi.

In disseminating these debunks, Africa Check published them on its website and shared on social media through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts.

They also sent out weekly WhatsApp broadcasts containing fact-checks and debunks about the vaccines.

Understanding the importance of mainstream media in amplifying its reach, Africa Check organised weekly radio programmes on Radio One 103.5 FM Lagos where it educate listeners on what not to believe when it came to anti-vaccination misinformation.

“It has been a mixed reaction. Some have received them well, others didn’t, especially those that believed the vaccine conspiracy theories,” Okpi said, when asked about how the public received the vaccine-related fact-checks.

Clearly, vaccine misinformation remains a big challenge in Nigeria and would need to be tackled to reduce hesitancy.

But for this to be effective, there is a need for everyone to take responsibility for the information they share.

Beyond asking yourself if that information is true, it is worth asking, “am I unintentionally helping to push someone’s agenda?”

 

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