Coronavirus: Fact-checking fake stories in Africa

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Two African women in colourful face masks speaking to each other on the street. Image copyright Reuters

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa passed the one million mark this week, we’ve looked into some of the widely shared fake news about the pandemic on the continent.

Claim: Ghana’s president has endorsed a conspiracy theory video

Verdict: False

A voice recording endorsing various false conspiracies about the coronavirus pandemic has been attributed to the President of Ghana. We aren’t sure who’s speaking. It is a West African accent, but it is definitely not President Nana Akufo-Addo.

Ghana’s Information Minister has confirmed that the voice was not the president’s and said the claim was “obviously false”.

The message makes various unsubstantiated claims about the origins of the virus, including the widely-shared false notion that the pandemic was a planned event, a so-called ‘plandemic’.

It also features false claims about mandatory vaccinations and the involvement of Bill Gates in manipulating events.

We’ve previously written in detail about these compulsory vaccine rumours and the ‘plandemic’ conspiracy theory.

Different versions of the clip have been circulated in Europe, North America and Africa.

One, posted on a Nigerian YouTube channel, has clocked up more than 400,000 views.

The man who runs the channel says he changed the title of the video to “Africa Leader…Exposes Bill Gates Deadly Vaccine For Africa” after people in the comments pointed out it inaccurately named the Ghanaian president.

However, Nana Akufo-Addo’s photograph is still showing.

Claim: Drinking alcohol can ward off coronavirus

Verdict: This false claim was intended as satire, but has been widely shared in Africa.

A satirical video of a man’s reaction to the re-imposition of an alcohol sale ban in South Africa on a TV news channel has been viewed thousands of times on Facebook and is also circulating on WhatsApp.

The video has been edited to replace a senior representative of the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa (who was being interviewed), with a comedian.

The comedian Thandokwakhe Mseleku posted the video of his television appearance on Instagram and YouTube.

In the video, he says: “Sanitiser has got 70% alcohol, so if you are drinking alcohol, it is like you are sanitizing your inside.”

Judging by some of the comments to the video, people clearly thought it was real.

The comedian later labelled his videos as ‘parody’. We have asked Thandokwakhe Mseleku for a comment.

Drinking alcohol-based hand sanitiser is extremely dangerous and has led to deaths. It certainly doesn’t protect you from coronavirus.

Claim: Eating high-alkaline foods can eliminate the virus

Verdict: False.

A misleading poster claiming to offer advice from inside isolation hospitals on what to do to protect someone from coronavirus has been circulating on social media in Africa.

It claims that the ‘acidity’ of the virus can be eliminated by consuming high-alkaline foods, and lists a variety of fruits with their apparent pH levels.

The pH scale ranges from zero (very strong acids) to 14 (most alkaline). A pH of 7 is neutral.

Some of the values in the shared poster are way off this scale: Avocados register 15.6 and Watercress 22.7. This is simply incorrect.

But would alkaline foods kill the virus?

Different parts of the body have different natural pHs which are naturally kept in balance and can’t be changed through diet. For example, blood is very slightly alkaline, your stomach is acidic.

So eating certain foods would not have an effect on the pH level inside cells.

“Given that it would be impossible to increase the pH of your cells, then it’s a bit of a pointless argument to determine if high pH would inhibit the virus”, says Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen’s University Belfast.

According to Lee Mwiti, Chief Editor, Africa Check, the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp is a particular challenge for fact checkers.

The messaging app is hugely popular across the African continent, but as a closed platform it is hard to measure the spread of falsehoods and debunk them. He says Africa Check’s work with ‘tiplines’ and podcasts means they are “quite confident that it is a strong source of misinformation”.

Claim: A coronavirus vaccine trial in Africa has led to the death of two children

Verdict: False.

When two French doctors controversially suggested on French TV in April that early vaccine trials should be conducted in Africa, their comments caused an uproar, including among some in the African diaspora.

A London-based vlogger responded to the French doctors’ comments by falsely claiming that vaccine trials were already under way in Guinea, and made the further false accusation that two children had died as a result.

The video was illustrated with what was claimed to be a local news report showing unrest on the streets and interviews with sick children.

In fact, the news report was from March 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak began, and the incident was not related to a vaccine.

The Guinean health ministry put out a statement at the time which explained some people had experienced side-effects after being given an anti-parasitic drug treatment.

According to officials interviewed in the report itself and local articles, there were no deaths reported from this treatment.

The claims in the video first surfaced in May and were debunked at the time, but they have continued to circulate on Facebook and closed WhatsApp groups, and have been watched around 25,000 times on YouTube.

Local fact checkers are working hard to debunk these and other false stories circulating online.

Lee Mwiti from Africa Check says the most shared and enduring falsehoods are those that have tapped into people’s anxieties, vulnerabilities and “lack of control in a time of unprecedented disruption”.

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