Misinformation flood hampers fight for virus vaccine in Africa

by AFP Fact Check Africa

The task of introducing a vaccine for the coronavirus faces an uphill struggle in Africa, where a flood of online misinformation is feeding on mistrust of Western medical research.

Across the continent, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms have been swamped by messaging that characterises vaccine research as harmful or even part of a plot to kill black people.

The world’s poorest continent — and the most vulnerable to the disease, given its poor health infrastructure — Africa has recorded more than 48,000 COVID-19 cases, 1,900 of which have been fatal, according to an AFP tally as of Wednesday.

The toll is below that of other continents, although the true figure may be considerably higher, given the lack of access to testing.

The absence of a cure has sparked a flurry of claims for purported remedies.

They range from consuming onions and ginger and drinking one’s urine to a herbal formula touted by Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina — assertions that fly in the face of stern scientific warnings.

But it is the quest for a vaccine that has sparked particularly toxic disinformation, an investigation by AFP Fact Check has found.

In Senegal, a rumour that seven children died after being given a COVID-19 vaccine was shared thousands of times in Facebook posts in English and French.

In a video showing a crowd gathered in a Dakar street near a parked police car, a female voiceover presents the footage like a news report, explaining that the children “dropped dead” after receiving the vaccine.

AFP found that the disturbance was in fact triggered when locals mistook a door-to-door cosmetics salesman for a health ministry worker. The government said that no children have died from a coronavirus vaccine.

Another post shared on Facebook and Twitter refers to a US government experiment that started in the 1930s and saw health workers withhold treatment from black men with syphilis to study the disease.

In 40 years, 28 of the test subjects died of syphilis and another 100 died of complications.

“US government offers free healthcare to southern rural blacks. Intentionally injects them with syphilis. Still want a corona vaccine?” the post reads, next to a photograph of black men in flat caps and dungarees waiting to be seen by white health workers.

And in another post widely shared around Africa, an illustration shows a black woman brandishing a machete towards a white doctor performing an injection. (AFP)