By Kelechukwu IRUOMA
AS vaccines continue to be rolled out to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, several false claims are being spread to misinform and discourage people from taking them.
In Nigeria, about 166, 000 people have been infected with the virus and over 2, 000 deaths reported by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC). However, the increasing spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation has become a stumbling block to the fight against the virus, thereby discouraging people, especially those in the rural areas, from taking the vaccine doses.
Social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have become tools that are being used to spread misinformation about the virus and the vaccines that have been developed to combat it.
Claim of vaccine leading to death
Top among COVID-19 misinformation is the claim that vaccines reduce the lifespan of people who take them. For example, a Whatsapp message which went viral in March 2021 claimed that people below 50 years of age who took the vaccine were expected to die within five to 10 years while those above 70 would die within two to three years.
The viral message attributed to one Irish Professor Dolores Cahill also claimed the vaccine had the capacity to make people impotent.
Keyword search of the claim was carried out and the researcher did not find the claims shared elsewhere online apart from WhatsApp. However, the researcher found several claims made by the same professor, which were fact-checked by The Journal and found to be untrue and misleading.
Dr. Cahil is a professor of Translational Science at the University College Dublin’s School of Medicine, who chaired the Eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party, a political party that advocates Irish withdrawal from the European Union. She has, however, resigned as the chair of the Irish freedom.
Vaccine is a weapon to depopulate Africa claim
Yet another COVID-19 misinformation which is widespread is the claim that the vaccine is a weapon to depopulate Africa. This originated via a six-minute video clip, where Robert Young, an American naturopathic practitioner, stressed the need to reduce the global population starting from Africa.
In the video that went viral, Young, who was answering questions from a group of panelists, said there was a need to reduce the growing global population, starting from Africa.
“For the purpose of sterilisation and population control, there are too many people on the planet we need to get rid of in the words of Bill Gates, at least three billion people need to die. So we will just start off in Africa. We will start doing our research there and we will eliminate most of the Africans because they are deplorable, they are worthless, they are not part of this world economy so they have their rights taken away and they are suppressed and experimented,” he said in the video.
Young, who spoke in the video, was searched on Google and it was discovered he is an American naturopathic practitioner and author of alternative medicine books promoting an alkaline diet.
A Google reverse image search with a screenshot of the video led to an hour and 38-minute video posted on YouTube on November 20, 2019.
The video was said to have been filmed at the International Tribunal of Natural Justice (ITNJ) in Bali, Indonesia, during the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the ‘Weaponization of the Biosphere’ in June 2019.
The video, however, revealed that Young was making a claim that several vaccines being sponsored by Bill Gates and given to children in developing countries were meant to kill them, thereby reducing the population of Africa.
The claim was later debunked.
The claim regarding COVID-19 vaccine side effects
Yet another widespread misinformation centers around the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines.
On March 12, 2021, Vanguard, a national daily newspaper with many daily readers in Nigeria, published a story with the headline ‘COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine has no side effect – NAFDAC D-G’ and attributed it to the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) Mojisola Adeyeye.
Part of the story read:
“Adeyeye said that the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweighs the risk, as it has already been scrutinised. She noted that there was no medicine without its side effects, especially when still going through the developmental stage. The director-general said that from all indications of quality and efficacy, the benefits of AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risk and the side effects.”
The researcher conducted a keyword search on the claim and did not find the same headline story published elsewhere.
The content of the Vanguard story was read and analysed, and it revealed that it contradicted the headline.
NAFDAC DG Mojisola Adeyeye was quoted to have said that every drug had side effects but the benefits of the drug outweighed the side effects.
However, the Guardian and Pulse Nigeria published a similar story with headlines showing that even though the vaccine had side effects, the benefits would outweigh the risks. The headline used was misleading.
Misinformation may slow the fight against COVID-19 pandemic
Sources who have had the opportunity of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine doses in Nigeria said they refused to take the vaccine due to misinformation they received, which influenced their decisions not to take it.
Despite the breakthrough in the development of vaccine to reduce the spread of the virus, many Nigerians, especially those in rural communities, are still not willing to take it, leaving them susceptible to the virus.
“I did not take [the vaccine] because I was confused,” said 23-year-old Chiamaka Ani.
“I never had anyone explain to me what the vaccine was all about and if there were any side effects after receiving it,” she said, stressing that some of the COVID-19 vaccine misinformation she received on social media discouraged her. “I saw some conspiracy theories on WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram about the vaccine.”
About 176 million people have been infected with the virus globally with more than 3.5 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In March 2021, Nigeria received 3.94 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and is aimed at vaccinating 20 per cent of the population.
The Nigerian government said it planned to vaccinate 40 per cent of its total population in 2021, with an additional 30 per cent in 2022. It plans to at least vaccinate 70 per cent of the country’s population.
The vaccines were immediately distributed to various states with the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) assigned the responsibility of vaccinating Nigerians.
Nigeria was given 3.9 million AstraZeneca,but only 3.1 million doses have been administered, out of which only 1.01 million have been fully vaccinated, which is about 0.5 per cent of the country’s population.
“I won’t take [the vaccine] because I do not believe in the virus,” said Judith Ohakwe. “I do not believe we have it here [in Nigeria].”
Ohakwe said she received several messages on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, making her not believe in the virus being present in Nigeria.
“The messages were mostly voice notes shared to me privately and on WhatsApp groups I belonged to. I saw several Facebook posts,” Ohakwe said.
“You might not necessarily believe in it [conspiracy theory], but it has a way of creating fear in you,” she said.
An epidemiologist and technical assistant to the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 Onyebuchi Onovo said the spread of misinformation would prolong the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria
“Vaccines are lifesavers and it has been proven to be so over time,” he said. “The low uptake of the vaccine means that the vaccine will continue to linger or continue to be within the population.”
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme in partnership with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), and Africa Uncensored.