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Coronavirus – DRC: Rallying to combat COVID-19 rumours in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By APO Group
04 March 2022   |   12:00 pm
It can be hard to tease apart fact from falsehood amid the distorted, oft-repeated COVID-19 stories. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a network of myth busters is on constant watch, tracking and addressing misinformation thanks to government efforts with support from World Health Organization (WHO) and partner organizations. “At the start of the…
WHO Regional Office for Africa

It can be hard to tease apart fact from falsehood amid the distorted, oft-repeated COVID-19 stories. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a network of myth busters is on constant watch, tracking and addressing misinformation thanks to government efforts with support from World Health Organization (WHO) and partner organizations.

“At the start of the pandemic, we were inundated with rumours and disinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines,” says Imam Famba Ali Huseini, leader of the Usoke Central Mosque in a busy neighbourhood. “In Kinshasa’s Muslim community, people feared the vaccine. Some thought Africans were being used as guinea pigs, and that the vaccines were made with pork gelatine.”

WHO has worked with the Ministry of Health to establish a rumour alert and refutation system. Health workers, community and religious leaders, and journalists have been trained to detect and manage disinformation. The goal is to equip the public with accurate COVID-19 information so that vaccines can protect more lives.

During an information campaign visit to his mosque, the imam recalls, “the doctor took us through the standard process involved in making the vaccine. He broke down the vaccine’s composition, which allowed us to see that it contains no pork gelatine. 

“But even more importantly,” he continues, “he showed us the vaccination statistics in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, where people have been accepting the vaccine.”

The imam has since been vaccinated, and now uses his sermons to appeal to the faithful to follow suit. Thirty other mosque leaders across Kinshasa have been trained to combat the most common rumours.

A recent study by Democratic Republic of the Congo and international researchers on vaccine acceptance shows that 45% of false information on COVID-19 is transmitted by word of mouth, 20% via social media. A further 16% is spread through television and radio, and an equal measure by traditional healers.

Most of the rumours involve COVID-19 remedies, false medical advice and conspiracy theories.
Since August 2021, the WHO-coordinated Africa Infodemic Response Alliance has provided community rumour-monitoring training for more than 20 people in government institutions and 160 others in the provinces of Haut-Katanga, Kinshasa and Kong Central.

“We were stuck when it came to vaccine communications. Before the infodemic expert arrived, we had no idea how to combat both the pandemic and the disinformation at the same time,” says David Olela, communications lead for the Ministry of Health’s Expanded Vaccination Programme.

“Having a local team trained in rumour management has helped us turn an anti-vaccine narrative into a pro-vaccine one. And having community feedback analysis has allowed us to adapt our communication strategies to the information needs surrounding COVID-19 vaccines,” Olela explains. Key messages were tailored to tackle rumours, and political, religious and community leaders are regularly provided with updated information to avoid conflicting messages.

“We’ve also learned to use the Viral Facts Africa videos – we publish them on our site to deconstruct the rumours circulating in the community,” he continues. “That was how, for instance, we were able to refute a rumour about someone who had supposedly died after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Winning over the vaccine-hesitant has called for considerable effort at all levels.

More than 600 health workers with direct community access have been trained in identifying and refuting myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Some 144 media professionals have also been trained in fact-checking and source reliability, especially with respect to online content. 

Additionally, to reinforce the essential role of political authorities in combatting disinformation, question-and-answer sessions on rumour refutation have been organized in the national parliament, before 300 national and provincial representatives.

COVID-19 vaccination rates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain among the continent’s lowest. By the end of January, only 210 000 people were fully vaccinated – a coverage rate of less than 0.5% of the population.

Thankfully, the WHO infodemic team’s efforts are bearing fruit.

“We’ve seen doctors, military personnel getting vaccinated,” enthuses Dr Moïse Yapi, who heads the Immunization and Vaccination Department at WHO DRC. “We’ve also seen leaders of all religious persuasions becoming anti-disinformation advocates and vaccine promoters themselves. 

“Churches were reluctant at first. But after the infodemic management sessions, we saw them start to raise vaccine awareness in the community,” Dr Yapi says.

The rumour-busting and fact-checking efforts have also helped combat other diseases. In the recent cholera and meningitis outbreaks, there were rumours that health authorities would take advantage of the outbreaks to secretly vaccinate people against COVID-19. Early analysis of disinformation helped debunked the misinformation, allowing the vaccinations to continue smoothly.

“Community feedback analysis has allowed us to collect rumours on public health issues beyond COVID-19,” says Dr Yapi. “The infodemic team has also been helping us manage rumours about cholera and meningitis and promoted vaccine acceptance.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of WHO Regional Office for Africa.

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