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COVID-19 secrecy: Nigerian media, health privacy and public safety – Part 4

By Marcel Mbamalu
25 June 2020   |   3:35 am
On May 28, 2020, exactly three months since Nigeria’s COVID-19 index case was diagnosed, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) sent the following text message as part of dozens...


On May 28, 2020, exactly three months since Nigeria’s COVID-19 index case was diagnosed, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) sent the following text message as part of dozens sent since the pandemic: “COVID-19 is REAL. So many of our health workers are risking their lives to protect the rest of us. Take Responsibility. Be supportive and stop spread of fake news.” A closer scrutiny of that message would reveal that:

1. The government agency directly charged with containing COVID-19 accepts that credibility is still a big issue three months into the disease in Nigeria.

2.People may be toying with the disease because they are not aware of how much health workers are struggling to save lives. But why would people play with death?

3. The plea to be responsible and supportive also betrays the absence of those attributes among many. Spread of fake news has instead taken the place of belief, responsibility and supportiveness.

4. Fake news stems from doubts about COVID-19 among many Nigerians who do not know, and have not witnessed the effort of health workers to save lives.

5. The real message from NCDC is failure of strategy. Simply let people see death approaching and watch if they will escape – take an example from what happened to freedom of movement in all of the western world, where freedom is treasured more than human breath.

While reacting to issues that followed easing of lockdown in Nigeria, former director general of the Nigeria Television Authority, Tonnie Iredia said: One week after the relaxation of our lockdown policy, the consensus was that the conditions designed to make the relaxation a win-win situation were followed more in the breach. Everyone blamed the average Nigerian known for his or her anti-establishment posture which encourages cynicism and disbelief in what government says or does….Unfortunately, blame-game players do not realize that nothing has changed in our environment to reverse the subsisting apathy. Why should people believe in government and her agencies which have remained notorious for speaking from both sides of the mouth? In truth, there are too many contradictions in our polity to confuse anyone including the so-called elite.

Evidence from Health Editors
To understand some of the constraints in access to information on COVID-19, this researcher asked 12 purposively selected health editors about their experiences and constraints towards reporting the disease. The study takes note of the Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) in designing the study (Tong et al., 2007). Access to fellow journalists was facilitated through established contacts. The editors helped in deconstructing the text of their own responses to suggest themes.

This was done to eschew bias. The editors were asked about the constraints experienced in the course of reporting COVID-19. The issue of secrecy was not added to avoid leading question. Actually, data used in preparing this piece was drawn from a 10-item unstructured questionnaire used in another study on contexts of reporting COVID-19. The questionnaire asked about ease of access to information, openness of treatment centres, ability to find relevant images to illustrate stories and whether there were constraints posed by resources for information gathering. The questions were based on some audience complaints about the ways in which coronavirus has been reported in the Nigerian media.

With the help of the health editors, the study developed the final themes after initial coding. These included responses about (1) information sourcing, (2) visit to isolation centres, (3) using images of COVID-19 patients, (4) impact of resources for information gathering. The themes were directed towards portraying secrecy as constraint to reporting COVID-19. Further evidence was drawn from opinions of journalists in published newspaper articles concerning secrecy on COVID-19.

Results show that secrecy about coronavirus reporting stems from government handling of information. The present circumstances of reporting in Nigeria generally suggests that inadequate resources to pursue stories have sacrificed social responsibility and mortgaged media capacity in looking for the right information. When asked to describe the scenes in the isolation centres covered by their medium, Respondent 1 said: I have never entered any isolation centres, though went close to it. It is a prohibited region heavily guarded by security to prevent anyone from entering, not even journalists, except those media highly connected to the government. However, images of isolation centres that I am able to get through TV and Internet are that of Health workers in jumpsuit PPEs. Images of isolation centres in Nigeria are told by few recovered patients. The inside images of Nigeria Isolation centres from video clips always showed where food was being served, patients having fun, not suffering or undergoing pains associated with the pandemic. However images of Isolation centres abroad depict patients in pain and distress and efforts of health staff trying to mitigate the ordeals.

After an influential Nigerian and media personality survived the disease, he relayed his experience to his broadcast station, which aired it. Res 12, a journalist in the station, said: “When Dokpesi was taken to the isolation centre after he was said to have tested positive for Covid-19. He came back and talked about his experience, saying that he doesn’t know the difference between Covid-19 and malaria because he wasn’t treated like a COVID patient. He was given just malaria drugs and paracetamol. After this was broadcast, NBC sent a warning note to the company few days later accusing AIT of airing information that threatens national security. We all know what that meant.”

It is noteworthy that there are organisational and professional ethics, national laws and international guidelines about handling infectious diseases and patient data (Kalra, et al., 2006; Institute of Medicine, 2009; Hammerstein 2012; Carey, et al., 2020). WHO (2016) guide protects patients and their relatives against unwarranted disclosure of information that can expose them to stigmatisation. The Hippocratic Oath also doctors them from releasing some kinds of information about patients to the public.

Consequently, concerning missing images of COVID-19 patients and isolation centres in media reports, Res 5, who works in a state broadcasting service said: “We do not show patients in the isolation centres as a matter of policy so as to respect their dignity and break the chain of stigmatisation.”In principle and in policy that is true. However, one can ask: Did New York Times not break any rules? No, it did not, because the manner of the reporting did not have information that could identify anyone, much less lead to any form of stigmatisation. Moshood (2020) argues that the world has since passed the stage of using the guise of Hippocratic Oath to endanger the safety of people. Referring to the New York Times story above, he says that the way the NCDC has managed COVID-19 in Nigeria does not have human face.

One of the respondents, Res 3 said: “Government actions that affected me was the fact that there are instances where all we were fed with is half-truth or lies.” Another one said: “Secrecy of infected patients.” Res 10 complained of “lack of audience to journalists,” when public officials are reached for comments, adding that officials appear to be selective in the journalists they speak with. Res 2 simply answered: “Lack of information/limited access to information on identities, testing, treatment of patients.”

One-by-one, the editors bemoaned their inability to truly report the pandemic to meet audience interest as expressed in reader reactions on their social media platforms. A respondent, Res 7, said that the people were far from the reality of the disease, and that is why they show limited adherence to protective measures. Iredia (2020) says of Nigerians: Nigerians who probably believe the pandemic exists also have ample doubts. How did Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State prevent the crisis from his state which has common borders with Abuja and states with several cases of infections and deaths? The story that he developed a protective magical ‘app’ is not as astonishing as his claim that NCDC has a predetermined figure which Kogi is unwilling to endorse (Iredia, 2020).

To be continued tomorrow.

Dr Mbamalu is the News Editor of The Guardian.