NCDC’S battle against conspiracy theories
Similarly, a study published by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reported that about 5,800 people have been hospitalised following the misuse of substances and practice shared widely on social media as a means to prevent or treat COVID-19. These statistics, which are most likely under-reported, underscore the threat, which conspiracy theories represent.
As the first pandemic to occur following a huge transformation in the digital and information sector, COVID-19 poses an unprecedented challenge for public health institutions, which lead the response against the disease. These institutions have to tackle not only the virus itself but also viral misinformation and other kinds of falsehood pervasive in today’s culture. From claims of cures to conspiracies about vaccines, conjecture about infection rates and more, dodgy beliefs from unapproved sources are a dangerous distraction from the credible guidance provided by the institutions appointed to lead the response to the pandemic in countries across the world.
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which leads Nigeria’s public health response to Covid-19, is the country’s preeminent authority on all matters relating to infectious diseases. The agency has fully risen to the challenge of battling the spread of fake news, despite obvious difficulties. A search of the word “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” from any location in Nigeria on Google, will show results from NCDC’s up to date website; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube accounts- all popular social media platforms. In addition, members of the agency including the Director-General appear on television and radio nearly every day of the week. This means that sharing or acting on any COVID-19 related information that is not compatible with guidance from NCDC or the WHO can be interpreted a deliberate act of ignorance that is unsafe and endangers lives.
But this has not stopped many Nigerians from running with some of the theories that have come from dubious sources. Since the emergence of the virus in late 2019, a vast amount of false and potentially dangerous information has been shared by everyone from children to adults, ordinary citizens to world leaders, medical doctors, the clergy, etc. all against the advice of respective national health authorities and the WHO.
The deaths, injuries and other fallouts from false theories underscore the need for Nigerians to strictly follow the scientific leadership of NCDC and the WHO. Over the past few months, various instances where the public ignored the official position of these authorities have become cautionary tales. A case in point is the herbal drink called “Covid-Organics”, produced in Madagascar from the Artemisia plant and launched in April as a cure for Covid-19. The alleged cure became a popular topic on Twitter with many praising Madagascar for finding a cure from homegrown ingredients and recording low Covid-19 infections. Some people including Nigerians questioned the WHO’s warning against trusting in Covid-Organics over the organization’s concerns that the drink had not gone through proper trials. The Internet became rife with optimistic headlines as Madagascar continued to promote the alleged cure.
“I’m convinced that, in fact, history will prove us, but today there are already two cases that have been cured with the COVID-Organics,” said President Andry Rajoelina who also declared that it was mandatory for children to take the drink as they returned to school.
However, by July, hospitals in Madagascar reported that they were overwhelmed and running out of beds after a spike in Covid-19 cases with 69 dead, bringing into question the efficacy of COVID-Organics. In response, President Rajoelina, no longer waving the victory flag, re-imposed a lockdown on the central region, allowing only one person per household to go out for food and medicine. The Covid-19 crisis in Madagascar illustrates why NCDC and the WHO should not endorse any remedy that has not undergone the standard scientific processes. Every probable therapy is expected to go through various stages of the trial to guarantee efficacy and safety before approval for public consumption.
Sadly, even some world leaders have ignored the standard protocols and encouraged members of the public to use unapproved therapies. The promotion of Hydroxychloroquine worldwide as a preventive measure and cure for Covid-19 is a prime example of this abuse. NCDC’s Director-General Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu has stated clearly that in Nigeria the use of Hydroxychloroquine is limited only to clinical trials on Covid19 and like other global health experts he has cautioned against using the drug casually. Despite warnings by WHO based on reports of potential side effects, the drug has been endorsed as a Covid-19 therapy by influential figures such as President Donald Trump of the United States and President Jair M. Bolsonaro of Brazil.
“What do you have to lose? Take it,” Trump said in April. And in May he stated that he had been taking Hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against Covid-19 only to say later that he had stopped.
There have been other random endorsements of the drug, which have gained traction such as the infamous video featuring a Dr. Stella Immanuel, which was eventually flagged as Covid-19 misinformation and taken down by major social media platforms. The claims by these influential individuals have led to negative outcomes including increased demand and a global shortage of both Hydroxychloroquine and the related drug Chloroquine from legitimate use in treating malaria, arthritis, and other ailments. According to a Premium Times report, a pharmacy in Port Harcourt had increased the price of Chloroquine from N3000 to N50,000 between March and August. The same trend has been spotted in other states in the country.
Furthermore, there have been disturbing reports of people poisoning themselves by taking the drugs without medical supervision in the wake of these claims. It is noteworthy Hyroxychloroquine first became a viral topic online in March, and that same month three people were hospitalised in Lagos after taking Chloroquine.
Warnings against unapproved therapies have been proven necessary regardless of how bizarre the therapies sound. For instance, there was a public outcry from the medical community in April after President Trump suggested research into whether Covid-19 might be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body, a claim he later denied. The US leader also appeared to propose exposing patients to radiation via UV lights, an idea dismissed by a doctor at the briefing.
Previously, some social media stars have also suggested using bleach as a cure for the deadly virus.
YouTuber Jordan Sather, who has several thousands of followers across his channels, has claimed that a product, Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS), which contains bleaching agent chlorine dioxide, can wipe out the infection. There have been other reports of people being hospitalised after ingesting harmful substances to fight Covid-19. Scientists have had to reiterate age-old warnings that bleach and other disinfectants are harmful chemicals that can easily kill people exposed to them.
Scientists have also had to caution the public against some harmful ideas which may sound safer simply because they are familiar to local culture. One such idea is that inhaling steam can cure the virus – a practice, which medical experts warn, could potentially damage the lungs. There are also unproven and therefore unsafe claims that familiar herbs like Ginger, Dogonyaro and Moringa, taken in random doses can defeat COVID-19. While these may be useful in boosting immunity, they are far from instant cures. Besides the obvious risk of overconsumption of these powerful herbs, there is no proof that these claims are any different from Madagascar’s claim that its magic concoction had defeated COVID-19.
These claims are among many that have been proven wrong in the course of the pandemic. Over time, they will likely join the list of dangerous conjectures that were once made about the pandemic such as ‘Covid-19 doesn’t affect black people’ or ‘Covid-19 is caused by 5G technology’.
There has also been a dangerous trend of some people rejecting evidence that the virus is present in their community or even claiming outrightly that it does not exist at all. This burying of one’s head in the sand stops people from taking precautions against Covid-19 as the virus makes inroads into our communities.
When governments are hostile to expert guidance from NCDC, it can result in high infection rates and deaths as seen in the Kano State crisis earlier in the year. At first, local authorities in the state had blamed hundreds of mysterious deaths on illnesses like meningitis, malaria, and hypertension, rejecting NCDC’s intervention. Alarmed by the death toll, the Federal Government prevailed on the state government to allow NCDC to investigate the deaths and this exposed a health crisis with Kano becoming the centre of the pandemic in northern Nigeria at the time.
This cautionary tale highlights the importance of following NCDC’s guidance and supporting the official efforts to contain the virus. Renegade theories and assertions typically create more work for health authorities at the expense of the urgency of creating awareness, expanding capacity, and saving lives.
Historically, more people seek outlandish solutions out of panic during pandemics and other major threats. And research shows that during times of uncertainty such as this, many are more likely to believe unproven claims. But, it is our responsibility as Nigerians to take advantage of the proactive communications provided by NCDC. Before you share the next broadcast message on Whatsapp or retweet unverified information, check if it follows the scientific guidance of NCDC and other designated health authorities.
*Egbuson is a policy analyst based in Abuja
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