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How poor communication, poverty, others fuel fake news on COVID-19

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Since the first case of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was recorded in Nigeria on February 27,2020, the country has been awash with a lot of misinformation about the pandemic, which albeit, may have provoked fears among citizens.

The fake news around the coronavirus has ranged from claims that millions of people have died to faux science suggesting that drinking boiled water can cure you of COVID-19. While fake news is a global problem, it is especially so in Nigeria, where false information on social media can quickly end up on mainstream media.

Last Wednesday, former finance minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, tweeted fake news when she underscored a point about observing social distancing in food aid distribution in the COVID-19 era.

She cited a purported example from Rwanda and attached a photo to underscore her point.

“Responsible food distribution with social distancing to assist lower income households in the #COVID19 era! A great example from #Rwanda where community workers also distribute food and other necessities door-to-door @PaulKagame,” she tweeted.

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Her reference to Rwanda turned out to be false, as Bashir Ahmad, President Muhammadu Buhari’s aide wrote, “But unfortunately, the picture attached to your tweet is fake, didn’t appen in Rwanda, but Gambia, it happened in May, last year, during Ramadan. Iweala subsequently apologized.

Many have argued that the whole information and statistics about COVID-19 in Nigeria, which is shrouded in secrecy, has made fake news to thrive in the country.

Prof. Lai Oso of school of communication, Lagos State University told The Guardian that the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) must be more active in getting the right information out, because, “Some of the people spreading fake news do it for fun without thinking of the consequences, hence, NCDC must be a step ahead of them.

“We cannot stop fake news. It is obvious that none of the fake news gives credit to the fight against the virus, some are meant to discredit government’s efforts. In fact, the mainstream media made fun of individuals who donated money towards the fight, saying it was just a public relations to them. But such acts should not be encouraged.”

Oso noted that some of the fake news are organised, citing example of the 5G claims, which he described as “global plan.”

He condemned critics of government’s palliatives, saying, “people have become so cynical of government that they are ready to say anything. Government is competing with so many sources, and the era of hoarding information should be gone. If government is quick to releasing authentic information, people would always weigh the news to know which one is real.”

He urged the government to create trust in the people, adding, “there is a lot of mistrust of the government. For instance, the comments by Nigerians when the ministry of finance was gutted by fire last week say it all. All this is a history of government’s failure.”

Former Director-General of Nigeria Television Authority, NTA, Tonnie Iredia, said lack of proper communication could destroy countries.

According to him, “if Nigerians did not take the stay at home directives on COVID-19 pandemic seriously, it is not only because people have to go in search of livelihood, but also that they have not seen sufficient seriousness in the directives.

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“To start with, there were too many exemptions, which created several loopholes for breaches. Those sharing palliatives for instance, did not obey social distancing. State governments did not demonstrate any signs of uniformity to the pandemic as some inadvertently legitimised the erroneous belief that the virus could not affect Africa the way it is devastating the western world.

“From nowhere, some of our governors suddenly decided to relax the lockdown in their states for prayers on Friday and the Easter season. Although we know they have powerful forces that usually alert them of coming events, this time, no predictions were in the public domain thereby making it appear that the lockdown directives were a matter of trial and error. Indeed, because the said directives did not really reach the rural areas, some people assumed that the pandemic was an elite phenomenon. So, it was poor communication all the way.”

He noted that those who accused people of timidity over the 5G claims communicated poorly. He added, “they may have converted some people if they had said 5G has nothing to do with COVID 19 because Lesotho, which has been 5G compliant since 2018 was yet to have anyone that is positive for the virus. Let’s learn to communicate effectively.”

Also, Prof Ralph Akinfeleye of University of Lagos noted that this was the moment of destruction for fake news proprietors. He called on the Federal Government to map out a strategy to encourage the mainstream media to upturn the phase of fake news, which is turning the lockdown to knockdown.

He said, “the government must work together with the mainstream media as people are becoming fragile to any news on coronavirus. Government should be willing to give out information as fast as possible to counter the act of the fake news purveyors. It should also work together with service providers. It will be difficult to eliminate fake news but at least minimise it.”

He advised the Federal Government through the ministry of information to create a COVID-19 situation room where it could be dishing out information to the public directly even before the formal announcement by the Medical Task Force. Adding, “Each media house should also create a ‘COVID 19 hotline desk’, which could help to curb the fake news around the pandemic in the country.

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Prof. John Illah of University of Jos expressed satisfaction over the level of compliance on the lockdown in Jos, the Plateau State capital.

He said the pandemic had taken the world by surprise, citing example with Europe, which used to brag about its level of organisation and success, “But look at how Italy and Spain have been paralysed. Our own level of preparedness and response would correspond with our former level of general preparedness.

“For instance, before the pandemic, robbery was merely a thing, insecurity and insurgency were already a pandemic in the Northeastern states and other areas,” he said.

While narrating the poor state of the country’s healthcare system, Illah said, “I had the need to go in for surgery in Jos University Teaching hospital and I can attest to the doctors level of competence, but there is an equipment deficit; the theatre robe I was given was all torn.”

He pointed out that Nigeria operates a capital system of the ‘have and have not’. “The system we are running is built on taking care of the elite. Where have you seen that the government was distributing food before? And if its ventures into it, it will be contracted to their members, who would inflate the prices. So when government says it has spent one billion or so on food distribution and people doubt it, it’s clear that they don’t understand the way government works. These are some of the paradoxes.”

The communication scholar noted that only 40 per cent of Nigeria’s economy is formal, 50 per cent is rural-based on agriculture while the remaining 10 per cent is informal constituting of people who earn a living on daily incomes.

He lamented the recent statistic by National Bureau, which states that 61 per cent of Nigerians belong to the 10 per cent of the economy.

Illah envisioned that there would be worse crisis after the lockdown, as no plan is on ground for the future.

He refuted the idea that the NCDC was to be blame for not making data available to Nigerians, which has led to the high rate of fake news in the country around COVID 19.

According to him, “the basis for any data is testing, but are we testing? Testing is not available, and every elite had some form of dependants.

“There are some emerging lessons from this issue, which points that people must take responsibility, and stop blaming government for everything. One of our major problems is inconsistency in policy enforcement. How can governors contradict the president’s order? Of course, partisanship would also play out.”

He lamented the situation where about 60 per cent of Nigerians do not believe the virus is real and that it was an elite disease. God is not in the business of providing us with what he has given us intellect for.”

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