Of COVID-19 and the nuisance of fake news

by Innocent Mujeri

For the first time in decades, the world is under siege from a global pandemic. The whole world has been brought to a standstill by the scourge of COVID-19. From Wuhan to Dotito, from New York to Soweto, the scourge has spared no one, rich or poor, black or white.

The global pandemic is happening at a time when sorting facts from fiction is increasingly difficult with the advent of social media and citizen journalism. A tsunami of misinformation and disinformation has accompanied the virus’ spread, provoking fear and exploiting vulnerabilities.

As COVID-19 has spread around the globe, conspiracy theories and rumours have also gone viral on social media platforms and other outlets leaving consumers of information reeling from the barrage of information, disinformation and misinformation.

This has probably prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to rightly say “We’re not just fighting an epidemic but we’re fighting an infodemic”

In Zimbabwe, the number of the affected is still at eight, although some busy mouths are pegging the numbers of COVID-19 patients to double digits. Such fake news and false information amidst this global crisis is greatly undermining the fight against the pandemic.

The social media has been used as a conduit for the spreading of rumours that the figures of COVID-19 patients could be much higher, some citing information from hospitals that do not even test for COVID-19 or have admitted those infected.

Zimbabwe has been hit by a deluge of fake news and disinformation about the virus and prevention, treatment and cures have been proffered.

Messages on preventing the spread of the coronavirus using traditional herbs and other unscientific methods have been propagated. Such influx of fake news has made genuine news hard to believe and has greatly put people at real risk of exposure to the virus. Former Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services ,Jonathan Moyo recently posted on Twitter that inhaling hot steam might cure COVID-19. Such false information coming from Moyo who is neither a doctor nor medical practitioner is dangerous as some people might believe this and get a false sense of security against the virus. Some have proffered a lemon and bi-carbonate soda concoction and supermarkets ran out of the ingredients, but all this is hearsay.

Social media activists, influencers and self-styled government critics such as Hopewell Chin’ono, Professor Jonathan Moyo, Gambakwe media and Dr Peter Magombeyi are using social media platforms and fringe websites to proliferate misinformation, propagate conspiracy theories and promote the denial of COVID-19.

Some online publications such as The Zimbabwe Mail and Zimbabwe News are also in a cruise to spread fake news about COVID-19 in the country.

Sometimes the  motivation of these fake news peddlers is simply to grow their online followership or simple mischief. For instance, the controversial  Zimbabwe Mail and Zimbabwe News published a fake story insinuating that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been diagnosed with COVID-19 disease. The story quoted an unnamed family member and an anonymous source. It was crystal clear that the story was fake as all quoted sources were faceless characters.

In other instances, the disgraced Dr Magombeyi, twitted that the Government of Zimbabwe is understating figures of COVID-19 patients and those who have succumbed to the pandemic. He threatened to expose the actual figures but repeated calls by his twitter followers for him to release the accurate figures has not yielded any results as the guy promptly went into hibernation.

There are also political ideologues who have been trying to exploit the pandemic to influence public opinion along partisan lines. Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have sought to create a narrative that the ZANU PF led government was not adequately prepared to fight the COVID-19 disease. One such charlatan who spread such a narrative is MDC Secretary for Health and Child Care Henry Madzorera who was quoted by an online publication Zimeye saying the allegedly bungling in the handling of the few cases reported in the media betrays high levels of unpreparedness on the part of government.

Such disinformation that the Government was not prepared for COVID-19 is treasonous as it may cause citizens to lose trust in the Government. It is also treasonous in that it trivialises the devastating consequences of the virus which to date has killed more than 40 000 people globally.

False information on COVID-19 is also undermining medical advice, proffering fake cures, inciting panic and being used for political point-scoring.

COVID-19 is an issue of life and death where all people globally are desperately looking for help and survival, it is therefore criminally irresponsible and extremely dangerous for people to peddle false and misleading information about the pandemic in the country.

Peddlers of COVID 19 fake news  should be reminded that doing so is a criminal offense. According to Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020,titled Public Health (Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020, publication and communication of fake news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic is now attracting a 20 year jail term.

The Statutory Instrument reads, “For the avoidance of doubt any person who publishes or communicates false news about any public officer, official or enforcement officer involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any private individual that has the effect of prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown, shall be liable for prosecution under Section 31 of the Criminal Law Code (“Publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State”) and liable to the penalty there provided, that is to say a fine up to or exceeding level 14 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 20 years or both”

Forewarned is being forearmed and peddlers of false news concerning COVID-19 should repent now.

Recently, peddlers of fake news were arrested in countries such as South Africa,Morroco,India and America .

It is therefore of paramount importance during this crisis for the local media and social media influencers to invest in fact-checking before publishing COVID-19 stories that may cause mayhem in the country. The media should not be found wanting by spreading misinformation.

Notwithstanding that the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the taskforce on COVID-19 headed by Vice President Kembo Mohadi remain the only trusted source of latest updates on coronavirus, all other sources outside of these remain “infodemic”.

May all Zimbabweans stay safe during this 21-day lockdown.