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Is Nigeria winning war against COVID-19 misinformation?

Even as the Federal Government has not relapsed completely the coronavirus lockdown, Nigerians doubt the government’s sincerity in the pandemic fight and issues around it. The mistrust is fueled by misinformation, which seems the order of the day.

While fighting against COVID-19 misinformation, a key factor of managing any crisis is effective communication, which can be difficult during an infodemic.

The rumor mill spreading misinformation about COVID-19 has resulted in the loss of confidence in the media by many Nigerians, and regrettably, government bodies are increasingly glancing through a similar lens.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has termed infodemic as, “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

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There has been a shift in terms of the places where people get their news from. Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have been accused of fueling misinformation.

In Nigeria, coronavirus is a reality. This comes with the mountain of related challenges with over 56, 735 reported confirmed cases as at September 17, 2020.

In scrambling to contain the pandemic, one seemingly effective response has focused on the vital importance of behaviour change. It involves approaches that ensure people adhere to protocols or pay attention to basic principles of hygiene and social distancing.

However, strategic planning is tough during a pandemic. Nigeriagovernment is trying to take necessary steps in order to accurately fight misinformation.

Misinformation, as well as, social distrust towards government’s response to COVID-19 has made many Nigerians to continue to doubt, amid the impression that the government and health authorities are engaging in antics designed to deceive the public on the true situation of the pandemic.

Rotimi Jaiyesimi, consultant obstetrics and gynecology, said the country is currently facing a war against COVID-19 and misinformation shrouded in myths can hinder the progress in containing the pandemic.

“There is no vaccine; there is no definitive treatment. Covid-19 is real and Nigeria has not reached the peak of the disease and far from flattening the curve, there is a need to dispel the myths and misinformation. Countering disinformation is a public service and the role of the media is critical.”

The expert said that the warfront is essential for people to know where the enemy is, the strike force, and the backup they have. “These are vital strategies in defeating the enemy and the same can be said of the fight against COVID-19. This is a new disease; the fear factor will not dispel the myths. Nigeria should be led by the evidence, collaborative work, learning from others, and educating the public, including school children. A time like this, we need good political leadership and report accurately,” he said.

To convince Nigerians on the true state of the pandemic, the government needs to keep repeating and presenting the facts — probably many more times than the untruths are repeated — and support them with all available evidence. Trusted sources of information, such as WHO and public health institutes, must remain visible across multiple communication channels, remaining vigilant for rumors and inoculating the public againstmisinformation.

More concerted effort is needed on the part of the Nigerian government to contain COVID-19 related misinformation. Good leadership can further strengthen trust, prioritize the virus and make the required funds available to accelerate response.

While misinformation has become one of the biggest enemies of the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria, approaching the health system response is based on the health system building blocks in terms of health financing, service delivery, governance, leadership and accountability, health management information system, infrastructures and supply of critical supplies and technology, among others.

“COVID-19 actually affects all the building blocks of the health system. “The main issue with this block is what accountability mechanisms we have for the funding in Nigeria; I mean it is not clear on what the procurement systems and actual expenditure are. So, I think, resource mobilization should be accompanied accountability because if you don’t have such accountability mechanisms we will not know exactly how the money has been used across any system,” Obinna Onwujekwe, professor of Health Economics, Systems, and Policy, observed recently in his presentation entitled: ‘Expenses and Health System Responses of COVID-19: What pointers for the future’ at a virtual media roundtable discussion organised by the Nigerian Academy of Science.

However, producing and disseminating facts and accurate information, the WHO, which is at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic, is transmitting authoritative information based on science while also seeking to counter myths.

The Federal Government and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) are now putting efforts to dispel rumors, urging Nigerians to observe precautions and also setting up risk communications strategy to update the public about the pandemic and combating misinformation.

Organizations like Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Christian Aid Nigeria country office are countering misinformation around COVID-19 by sharing the true situation of the outbreak. Through the #COVID19Truths project, referred to as “telling the true story project”, information related to COVID-19 in Nigeria will be monitored across multiple media platforms to identify false and misleading claims, which can lead to significant consequences for individual and public health.

Nigeria Health Watch will leverage on insights generated from their advanced media monitoring to produce multimedia messages that debunk misinformation around COVID-19 with attention given to context.

Vivianne Ihekweazu, managing director at Nigeria Health Watch, in a statement, said Nigeria Health Watch uses informed advocacy and communication to influence health policy and seeks better health and access to healthcare in Nigeria. “We seek to amplify some of the great work happening in the health sector, challenge the bad, and create a space for positive ideas and action”, she said.

“The project will apply insights from collated data to create evidence-based media campaigns to counter COVID-19 misinformation. “Through its various platforms, Nigeria Health Watch is a trusted source that provides informed commentary and in-depth analysis of health issues in Nigeria, always in good conscience,” Ihekweazu said further.

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