Standing Up to Myths and Misinformation in Nigeria During the Pandemic
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is a common and seemingly harmless saying. But what happens when commonly eaten foods like pepper, garlic and ginger are wrongfully said to prevent COVID-19? What can we do to fight harmful misinformation?
During the first two weeks of the lockdown in Lagos, Nigeria, a lot of people were afraid of contracting the virus. They wore gloves, face masks and practised physical distancing as instructed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
For some, the conspiracy theories being peddled on social media and among neighbourhood discussions are the reasons for the disbelief in the virus’s existence.
By the third week of the outbreak, people seemed to fall into two categories; those who believed in the existence of the virus and followed all instructions to combat its spread, and those who didn’t believe the virus exists or believed that it exists in some parts of the world but not in Nigeria. This second category was mostly responsible for the spread of myths and misinformation about the pandemic.
Tosin Wurola, a foodstuff trader in her early fifties at Ojodu Berger, Lagos, explained to me that if she does not see a COVID-19 positive case in her circle, then the virus does not exist. Sadly, she has probably succeeded in convincing most of her customers to think the same. This type of misinformation is common and could explain why there is little to no physical distancing observed in the markets.
For some, the conspiracy theories being peddled on social media and among neighbourhood discussions are the reasons for the disbelief in the virus’s existence. Peace Ejechi, one of my neighbours, who runs a provision shop at Ojodu Berger, in Lagos, said the lockdown was for the government to successfully install the 5G network and not to flatten the curve.
Another myth is that the virus cannot survive in Nigeria due to the nature of the Nigerian weather. Nigeria is a tropical climate and has its annual average temperature at 25.7 degrees Celsius. A returned migrant, Teniola Olatunji, who lives in Ogba, Lagos told me:
“It’s possible that the virus reached Nigeria, but I am sure it is gone for good. If it is in the country, there’s no need to worry or fret, because our weather is too hot for the symptoms to manifest.”
This cannot be further from the truth. According to WHO, COVID-19 spreads irrespective of the temperatures in the region. By mid-June, there were over 15,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Nigeria with about 4,800 recoveries. Several survivors have shared accounts of their experiences at treatment centres and isolation wards in the country.
There remains a belief that certain concoctions prevent and cure COVID-19. During my last awareness raising campaign at the General Market, Ipodo, Ikeja, some women shared home-made remedies, such as drinking alcohol or blended ginger and garlic, which they believe has kept them safe during the pandemic.
Bola Ibiyemi, a trader at Ipodo Market Ikeja said, “I’ve been cooking my food with ginger and garlic, using face mask and maintaining physical distance.”
While these foods have tremendous nutritional and health benefits, there is no proven research to show that they can cure or prevent COVID-19. Self-medication is a real problem practised by many. Some families used herbs and unprescribed malaria drugs to keep the infection at bay. This was not part of WHO’s instructions. Sadly, they didn’t stop at using these substances but shared false information with everyone who wanted to know more.
Unverified information continues to spread quickly in Nigeria as with most countries because of fear and reluctance to fact check information. The United Nations recently set up ‘Verified’, its fact checking initiative to tackle the spread of misinformation and fake news on COVID-19, increasing access and dissemination of trusted and accurate information. The Verified campaign provides reliable information about COVID-19.
However, there is still misinformation lingering in many communities. This is why offline and online campaigns work effectively hand-in-hand. Initiatives such as Migrants as Messengers (MaM), a regional peer-to-peer programme is carrying out activities through radio, television, in markets and other public spaces to raise awareness of COVID-19 among communities.
As a MaM volunteer, I recently participated in a campaign in Ipodo market, Ikeja Lagos to inform women market traders about the prevention of COVID-19. I had the privilege to speak with women in my neighbourhood on the importance of following WHO’s instructions on preventive measures.
As a whole, these initiatives can help tackle misinformation in Nigeria. It is crucial that those spreading these myths and misinformation desist from doing so to avoid putting the lives of those they love in great danger; the first recipients of this information are usually family and friends. People need to check any information about COVID-19 before believing it or passing it on.
For reliable information about the virus, visit the regional West Africa website on coronavirus.