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How conspiracy theories surrounding deaths of African leaders fuel COVID-19 misinformation

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By Jack Vincent Fidelis (Maiduguri, Nigeria) & Thomas Bwire (Nairobi, Kenya)


“If the west doesn’t have a lot to hide, why are sitting African leaders who oppose COVID-19 vaccination in their countries dying mysteriously?”

It’s a controversial claim. The idea that those who oppose the vaccine are being killed has no factual basis. But such rumours are commonplace.

Probed further, Bulama Grema, a 44-year-old civil servant in Maiduguri, North-East Nigeria, who made the statement, attested to getting his information from ‘informed sources’ at his local majalisa (an informal assembly of peer groups in most parts of northern Nigeria).

Such rumours have permeated into the African society and unconscionably affected COVID-19 vaccine reception from the fringes of the Sahel in Northern Nigeria to the coastline of Kenya on the Indian Ocean.

This, according to Nigeria Health Watch, does not come as a surprise considering the amount of misinformation about the vaccine online and in the public domain.

Misinformation, as purveyed by Bulama and his ilk, could be responsible for why many people in Africa shun COVID-19 vaccines and stigmatise those that contract the disease.

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The situation in northern Nigeria is not different from Kenya’s where Agostina Mbwaya, a 35-year- old mother of two living with her husband at Kibera Slum, a neigbourhood in Nairobi, was practically ostracised for having contracted and recovered from COVID-19.

“Neighbours stopped visiting our home and they warned their children not to come play with our daughter. The message was clear. We had become outcasts in our own community. I didn’t understand why people well-known to us could turn their backs on us like that.

“Now that I think of it, I felt sad deep down in my heart. In the first place, I never wished to be picked up by an ambulance at my doorstep because of the dreaded disease. We got healed from COVID-19 and came back to continue living our normal lives,” she said.

Godiya Bitrus, a 30-year-old resident of Goni Kachallari on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Borno State capital in Nigeria, recovered from COVID-19 and was discharged from an isolation centre. She had to relocate to her sister’s house in Bulumkutu, far away from home, to avoid the ‘hatred’ and stigmatisation meted to her for being ‘a potential carrier’ of the disease, according to her.

In a similar vein, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 29-year-old resident of Bulabulin Anda, a suburban area of Maiduguri, lamented how close friends deserted him when he returned from the isolation centre fully recovered. According to UNICEF, knowing the facts is key to being properly prepared, and protecting oneself and loved ones.

Sadly, there’s a lot of information out there that is incorrect. Misinformation during a health crisis leaves people unprotected and vulnerable to the disease and spreads fear and stigmatisation.

Opposition to COVID-19 vaccination and reported death of some African leaders

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African leaders from Tanzania (John Magufuli), Ivory Coast (Hamed Bakayoko), Eswatini (Ambrose Dlamini), Burundi (Pierre Nkurunziza) and even the President of the Caribbean island of Haiti (Jovenel Moise) died in active service.

Coincidentally, before their deaths, they had had issues with COVID-19 vaccination in one form or another. As a result, conspiracy theorists interpreted their demise to mean that they were eliminated by ‘the powers that be’ for their convictions.

But several prominent anti-vaxxers have died from COVID-19 across the world. Stephen Karanja, a Kenyan doctor who became a vociferous opponent of COVID-19 vaccine, died of COVID-19 on April 29, 2021, in Nairobi.

Stephen Harmon, a 34-year-old vocal opponent of vaccines, died on July 7, 2021, in California, USA.

Alan Scott Laniox from Texas, 54, who thought vaccines were ‘poison’ died on June 9, 2021, from COVID-19, after spending 17 days in a hospital on a ventilator.

On July 22, 2021, Reuters Fact Check team did a comprehensive report on the stories and debunked the fallacy for what it was:

“Following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise on July 7 [2021], a new meme circulating on social media presents the unfounded claim that he and four other leaders, who also died while in office, were killed for opposing COVID-19 vaccines.”

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Reuters has debunked similar claims on other posts, which can be  found here.

The meme (here , here) includes the photos of five leaders: Jovenel Moise of Haiti, John Magufuli of Tanzania, Hamed Bakayoko of Ivory Coast, Ambrose Dlamini of eSwatini and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi.

“All refused the vaccine,” the text on the meme reads.

What killed the African leaders?

In March, 2021, the late President John Magufuli of Tanzania died of heart disease according to the current president Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Before his death, the Vice President of Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar Seif Sharif Hamad had died in February, 2021, weeks after getting COVID-19.

The late Prime Minister of Ivory Coast Hamed Bakayoko, 56, died of cancer at a hospital in the German city of Freiburg, as reported on March 10, 2021, by Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Reuters reported on Dec. 13, 2020, that the Prime Minister of Eswatini (known until recently as Swaziland) Ambrose Dlamini died at the age of 52 after battling a COVID-19 infection for four weeks.

The Government of the Republic of Burundi announced the death of Pierre Nkurunziza on June 8, 2020, saying it was caused by heart attack.

The verifiable fact that the African leaders died of COVID-19 and other natural causes means, simply, that it would be impossible to surmise that their deaths had been caused by some non-existing pro-vaccination cabal.

Verdict

False. There is no evidence that the former leaders of Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Eswatini, Burundi and even Haiti were killed for refusing to vaccinate their countries against COVID-19.

Bulama Grema, the respondent in Maiduguri who amplified the misinformation, and those at Kibera Slum in Nairobi who victimised Agostina, Godiya and Ibrahim even though they were certified free of COVID-19, are easily deluded given the power of narratives created to misinform and mislead unsuspecting members of the public.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation must be combated to standstill

According to Nigeria Health Watch, the fight against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is an aggressive one — one that requires everyone to play their role.

Founder and CEO Daktari Msafiri LTD Initiative in Kenya Jeremy Gitau HSC, a doctor, said: “The best way families can handle misinformation on Covid-19 is to engage a clinician to disclose the positive results to close family members. Positive tests conducted can be shared as evidence too to eliminate stigma and mistrust by family members.”

While the doctor has a strong point, relevant stakeholders must do the needful to effectively combat conspiracy theories and misinformation, which are the banes of COVID-19 vaccination acceptance, experts say.

This publication was produced as part of IWRP’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site: https://africaresiliencenetwork.com/

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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2 COMMENTS

  1. For me personally I see nothing wrong with the anti-COVID vaccines. I completed the 2 doses of Astra-Zeneca 3 months ago. I am not maimed, don’t have blood clots, nor am I otherwise unwell. And I am 67 years old. I just find it difficult to relate to all the negative things being said about the anti-COVID vaccines. I am constrained to believe that individual lifestyles – smoking, drinking of alcohol, taking of hard drugs, high intake of processed and non-organically grown food – are strong determinants of negative reactions to anti-COVID vaccines if any. I may be wrong, but I feel that maintaining a body free of toxicity is a prerequisite for trouble free anti-COVID vaccine reception.

  2. Are you deliberately ommiting the people who died, get maimed or infected after taking either one or two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines?
    If you include such in your it would be credible. In the public domain there are lot of reports that more people have died from covid-19 vaccine than the the total from all the vaccines used since 19th century.. Explain this too.

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