By Jack Vincent Fidelis
“White People told us to do family planning; we refused, now they have come up with COVID-19 vaccine which we were told causes infertility”, a respondent, 29-year old petty trader, Falmata Kale, said during a vox pop gathered at Shehuri North area of Maiduguri and other parts of the city. In a similar vein, Idrisa Saleh, a 35-year old shopper at the popular Kasuwan Jogol (market) in Maiduguri said: “I heard that whoever takes a jab of COVID-19 vaccine will eventually run mad.” On her part, Dorcas Yakubu, a 26-year old student said: “Many people who got vaccinated fell ill as a result and were admitted in hospitals. In short, COVID-19 causes illness”.
These respondents, Falmata, Idrisa and Dorcas, like many others in society, constitute purveyors of myths, rumours and conspiracy theories that are peddled in their peer group meetings (known locally as majalisa in Northern Nigeria) where friends hangout, usually in the evenings, to discuss trending and sundry issues. The originators of such misinformation are often lost in the long line of information transfer from one person to the next. Such stories, however, have negative consequences on the health and general wellbeing of the people affected, especially in the war torn region (https://www.icrc.org/en/document/covid-19-conflict-coronavirus-nigeria-borno).
Commercial Keke Napep tricycle is another place where stories on COVID-19 are heard through grapevine. From one point to another the rider and his passengers often engage in discussing topical societal issues like COVID-19 pandemic, distribution and use of vaccine in Borno State and so on. During the ride, myths, rumours and conspiracy theories are shared.
Whatsapp group chat is another major culprit in the fake news and false information business. Purveyors make use of the app to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine. The following was reported in Washington Post:
Hours after Nigeria confirmed its first case of coronavirus Friday, Olumide Makanjuola, who lives in the state of Lagos, opened WhatsApp and was bombarded with a “sense of panic.”
Users on the messaging service had copied, pasted and forwarded notes warning that local flights, hotels and schools might have been contaminated. None of the information had been verified, Makanjuola said, but multiple versions of it snaked their way through private WhatsApp groups, some with hundreds of participants.
“The virus is closer to us than we think,” two of the messages ominously concluded.
As government leaders and health professionals race to contain an outbreak on the verge of a pandemic, they are simultaneously battling another hard-to-defeat scourge: the explosion of half-truths and outright falsehoods online. Nowhere is the threat direr than on WhatsApp, a service largely hidden from public scrutiny, vast in its global reach and often at the centre of some of the world’s most panic-inducing conspiracy theories.
Tech firms take a hard line against coronavirus myths. But what about other types of misinformation?
People in Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Pakistan, Ireland and other countries say they’ve seen a flood of misinformation on WhatsApp about the number of people affected by coronavirus, the way the illness is transmitted and the availability of treatments. The messages and voice memos have instilled fear, troubled businesses and created public health headaches for governments, including Botswana, which pleaded with people last month to be wary of what they’re reading and sharing on the service. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/02/whatsapp-coronavirus-misinformation/)
The respondents, Falmata, Idrisa and Dorcas, attested to getting their information from majalisa, Keke Napep and Whatsapp group chat. From these places, misinformation about COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines are originated and spread to people in the communities, market places, worship centres, football viewing centres and so on. It’s funny and vague how regular everyday people on the streets generate and spread COVID-19 related misinformation; thereby obstructing effective response to the pandemic as stated in United Nations Nigeria website:
“I doubted the reality of COVID-19 until I found myself struggling for breadth”
“I was among those who thought and touted that COVID-19 is a scam by government to embezzle money. But now I know better.”
Hassan Alhaji Gado, from Gwange 3 Ward in Maiduguri Municipal Council (MMC), Borno State, is a 26-year old Nigerian youth who had plans for himself and his family, until COVID-19 pandemic struck and put all plans in abeyance.
As the virus spread and the Federal Government of Nigeria, in collaboration with development partners responded, misinformation and fake news started circulating in the public space, especially in the social media. Notable in the widespread misinformation was the reference to COVID-19 as being non-existent, and a scam being perpetrated by the government. This dangerous narrative about a public health emergency of COVID-19 devastation became an ‘infodemic’ obstructing effective response to COVID-19 pandemic.
Just as many Nigerian youths bought into the fake news, Hassan also questioned the existence of COVID-19 and believed it was a scam to embezzle money. However, the turning point came when he fell sick and presented symptoms such as shortness of breath, headache and high fever. He got tested and his COVID-19 test returned positive.
“Honestly, I doubted the reality of COVID-19 until I found myself struggling for breadth, headache and high fever.” Hassan said at the launch of “COVID-19 Heroes Campaign”, a launch organised by WHO in collaboration with partners, to recognise and designate COVID-19 survivors as heroes and heroines, as part of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Borno State, North East Nigeria.
Borno State Deputy Governor and Chairman of the State Task Force on COVID-19 Response, Alhaji Usman Umar Kadafur, said at the launch that the campaign aimed to demystify and de-stigmatize COVID-19 survivors by declaring them heroes and heroines of a disease that has claimed many lives in the state.
Borno State is at the centre of a decade-old insurgency in north-east Nigeria which has claimed several lives and displaced millions of people internally. (https://nigeria.un.org/index.php/en/53638-i-doubted-reality-covid-19-until-i-found-myself-struggling-breadth).
Contrary to what Falmata Kale, one of the respondents in Maiduguri, was made to believe, COVID-19 vaccines do not cause infertility. According to the following Statistics and Research on the website of Our World in Data (a research-based organisation that focuses on poverty, disease, hunger, climate change, war, existential risks and inequality) updated on the 21st of June, 2021, 21.5% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 2.6 billion doses have been administered globally, and 36.1 million [more] are now administered each day. Only 0.8% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. Invariably, no data show that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility even though nearly 3 billion people have had one or both jabs of the vaccines worldwide so far. (https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations?country=OWID_WRL)
According to UNICEF:
The vaccine against COVID-19 DOES NOT cause sterility
For the publication “Science in Serbia”, Dr. Milos Babic, a molecular biologist and neurobiologist, answered some of the frequent questions related to coronavirus and the vaccine, among which was: “Do vaccines cause sterility?” to which he replied: “Vaccines do not cause sterility. This inaccurate rumour was started by two German pseudo-scientists and spread further on the internet. According to verified data, infection with the virus can harm male fertility, and that is another reason why vaccination is needed to protect against such effects from coronavirus. “
UNICEF’s young reporters also asked experts from the Public Health Institute of Montenegro (IJZCG) about this.
Verified information regarding the virus is that it can lead to impaired fertility in men. That is one of the reasons why vaccination is recommended – in order to reduce such effects of the virus. On the other hand, in the clinical research of the companies Pfizer and Moderna, 30 women who remained pregnant participated, which again indicates that there is no direct effect of vaccines on fertility.
Dr. Marija Božović from the Public Health Institute of Montenegro
The same message was given by doctors from the Clinical Centre of Montenegro (KCCG). “Vaccines against COVID-19 cannot have any long-term consequences. These vaccines have all passed clinical studies that have proven that this vaccine is not harmful to the human body. For now, there is no study or any research that confirms that these vaccines can have such an effect on our health,” said Dr. Djordje Krnjevic of KCCG.
Given that a large amount of misinformation is circulating in the media and on social networks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and during vaccination against this disease, it is extremely important to get information from credible sources. UNICEF’s young reporters invite all their readers to check all the information on the websites of the World Health Organization, the Public Health Institute, the Clinical Centre of Montenegro, the Ministry of Health and UNICEF.
We know that vaccines have enabled mankind to progress by eradicating infectious diseases, which is why we recommend that you do not believe everything you read on the internet and choose carefully what information to share, and to check its accuracy beforehand. If you do not know or are not sure if certain information is correct, ask your doctor. Let’s choose whom we trust.
In an effort to contribute to preventing the dissemination of coronavirus misinformation and to promoting credible sources of information, UNICEF’s young reporters have decided to check the accuracy of information published on social media and in the media that has attracted public attention. In verifying the accuracy of information, they have followed the example of the Public Disclosure Platform “Raskrinkavanje” and partly used its publicly available methodology.
The falsehood stated by the second and third respondents, Idrisa Saleh and Dorcas Yakubu, that COVID-19 could cause insanity and illness is absurd and has no basis in fact. According to the following fact check by USA TODAY:
The first claim that “Cov-19 Vax clinical trials have caused brain damage, paralysis and many illnesses in previously healthy volunteers” does not come with any sourcing or evidence. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization review of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines details common minor adverse reactions – injection site pain, fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain and chills – which are side effects typically shared post-vaccination with any vaccine (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/01/29/fact-check-no-evidence-claims-made-vaccine-warning-label/6639195002/).
Invariably, no evidence suggests that the claims are true. Yet the consequences of COVID-19 vaccine related misinformation are glaring. Dr Abubakar Ahmed, a radiologist in private practice in an interview in Maiduguri, said: “there is no documented evidence that COVID-19 vaccine can cause illness or lead to a patient being admitted in hospital. Drugs and even food intake have side effects and COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine or any other vaccine for that matter is no exception. These vaccines have benefits and side effects. The standard practice is to weigh the benefits and side effects. If the benefits outweigh the side effects, then you use it. Eating too much kose (bean-cake) can cause abdominal bloating for some people. Should everybody else stop eating the snack because it causes bloating for some people?”, Dr Ahmed reiterated.
It’s important to note the significant influence that religious and opinion leaders have in Borno in particular and Northern Nigeria in general. They can effectively influence the decision of the masses to accept Covid-19 vaccine.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience(CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and Africa Uncensored.