When a nurse in at Sadza District Hospital answered her phone one morning in April, she heard the voice of her frantic friend on the other end of the line.
News had spread over local community WhatsApp groups that the nurse had died of coronavirus. It was fake. She was, clearly, still alive, and she had not even tested positive for COVID-19.
According to the fake message, the nurse “died yesterday so the situation requires us to be cautious.”
Days later, local man Elliot Mafuta was arrested and fined $500 for spreading the lie on WhatsApp. Mafuta became one of the first people to be arrested under Section 14 of Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, which makes it illegal to publish or communicate false news during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Fake news has spread just as fast as the pandemic itself. While many see spreading fake news as mere amusement, the damage it causes is real. Apart from the mental anguish of victims, such as the Chikomba nurse, fake news around the virus makes it harder to prevent the spread of the disease itself.
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), remarked earlier this year.
From fake news around home remedies, to fake news claiming that the virus does not affect black people, the risk posed by fake news can be damaging. Early in the pandemic, some believed that black skin made them immune. This caused them to let their guard down and ignore warnings from health authorities on how to prevent the virus from spreading.
Dr Portia Manangazira, director of Epidemiology and Disease Control in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, says: “The important points from our data is that it’s clear we now have community transmission and the mode of transmission being person to person. There is currently a low risk perception at individual and community levels. For this reason, cases continue to rise.”
There has been information overload under coronavirus, and anyone can now generate false information and spread it as news. Across Africa, 86% of Africans aged 18-24 have access to a smartphone, while 90% use it for social media, according to a survey by the South African-based Ichikowitz Family Foundation.
In Zimbabwe, according to the survey, even before the virus arrived, 52% of young Zimbabweans felt that fake news had some impact on how they are informed about events around them. This would have worsened with the glut of information that arrived as the pandemic spread.
For those who have beat COVID-19, they still have to fight stigma, which itself is fuelled by fake news and a lack of information.
“The other day someone greeted me from afar and as the person drove past our gate they closed their windows. I can say that really hurt me,” says Saul Sakudya, a Ruwa man who was among the first Zimbabweans to recover from the virus.
So how can communities fight fake news? Firstly, every individual needs to question virtually every bit of news they receive on their phones from their friends. In addition, there is need to source information from credible sources. These include the Ministry of Health and Child Care, credible non-governmental organisations such as UN Agencies and local health care workers.
In Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Health and Child Care has partnered with organisations such as the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund to provide clear information on coronavirus. This information relies on data that has been verified by experts, as well as the Ministry and the WHO.
Accurate information on key issues such as as the symptoms of COVID-19, how to take care of those in isolation, social distancing in work and social spaces, where to get help and how to fight stigma, among others, are critical in the fight against COVID-19.
Fakes news creates fear and misinformation creates fear, panic, and makes it harder to fight the pandemic. Accurate information, on the other hand, is what communities need to win the fight against COVID-19.