Combating rumors and misinformation in the time of COVID-19

Sunday, 19 September 2021 18:27
A Wakiso community member receiving his vaccine while a URCS Volunteer
looks on

Acting on the wrong information can kill. In the first three months of 2020, nearly 6,000 people around the globe were reported hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation, a WHO research suggests. During this period, researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19.

Misinformation and rumors on COVID-19 are just as prevalent in Uganda, with Uganda Red Cross’ Tracking system showing upwards of 45,600 rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 circulating in communities around the country since the Coronavirus was first registered in Uganda in March 2020.

“Some people were thinking that COVID-19 was not there in Uganda because a myth was out there that COVID-19 does not affect Africans. That it is a disease for the white man. Another rumor that was there was that this was a deliberate tool of government to use this to deny some people a chance to campaign during elections”, elaborates Prize Tayebwa URCS Kampala West, Branch Manager.

“People lack information and those who have information, some have wrong information. People have various information about COVID, concerning the treatment and how it is spread”, says Tom Mulondo URCS Volunteer in Entebbe.

Rumors and misinformation create a breeding ground for uncertainty. Uncertainty fuels distrust, creating an environment of fear, finger-pointing, anxiety, stigma and even dismissal of proven health measures - which can lead to loss of life.

URCS Volunteers combating COVID-19 rumors and misinformation
through community engagement and door to door visits

“Some people were also doing a lot of steaming and taking a lot of ginger and garlic, and yet they did not have corona and we actually got a number of people who developed acute ulcers. And the problem was that they were taking lemon, ginger and garlic daily in large quantities, trying to vaccinate themselves so that they do not get the corona virus”, says Tom Mulondo.

To try and control what the World Health Organization has termed as the COVID-19 infodemic (a combination of facts and myths on any given topic), Uganda Red Cross Society with the Village COVID Task Force Teams, that were set up to drive the National Community Engagement Strategy, are engaging communities and distributing content, answering questions one-on-one or in communal gatherings, to combat the spread of rumors and misinformation.

Prize Tayebwa continues that, “The volunteers were trained and given all the information about COVID-19 and so in these communities, we were able to engage the people to tell them that, this is not witchcraft, this is a scientific disease which will go away with scientific measures and SOPs are one of them and then vaccination is another one”.

Through community engagement and the availability of answers to their questions, communities are coming round to behavioral change and following the guidelines and information being given to them through trusted sources.

Henry Nsamba, the Branch Manager of Wakiso attributes this to the teamwork done by the Village Task Force teams. He says, “We move as a team. This team includes URCS Volunteers, Village Health Team members, cultural and religious leaders, local council leaders and we have built community trust and now they are listening to us”.

URCS’ Information Tracking Dashboard showing over 45,000 rumors and
misinformation circulating in communities

By August 2021, over 2,000 Village Task Force (VTF) teams had been formed in communities around the country. The VTF teams have so far engaged with over 359,455 people with risk communication information.

In the early days of the pandemic, much of the misinformation and rumors focused on whether COVID-19 was real, or if it was even as serious as was being portrayed to warrant the wearing of masks, as well as numerous herbal treatments and cures. A year into the pandemic, vaccines are being rolled out, and information about them — some reliable and some not — is everywhere. The Village Task Force Teams and URCS Volunteers are in the communities addressing the misconceptions and misinformation.

Henry Nsamba continues that, “People thought that the vaccines were not safe and that when they are vaccinated, they will die in a few months. But through the risk communication, going from community to community, we have been able to tell them that we ourselves have been vaccinated and we are alive and healthy. And now we are seeing large crowds at health centers waiting for the vaccine”.

Although the COVID-19 infodemic cannot be wiped out completely, it is being managed through the Community Engagement Strategy, and the low numbers of COVID-19 infections and community spread after the easing of the lockdown, can be attributed to this. By showing people how to recognize and report misinformation and improve their media literacy, we can keep at bay the effects of the infodemic scourge and save lives. *World Health Organization April 2021

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URCS Contacts

Plot 551/555 Rubaga Road.
P.O. Box 494, Kampala Uganda.
Tel:     (256) 414 258701
Tel:     (256) 414 258702
Email: sgurcs@redcrossug.org

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