Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor: Doctor, Journalist & Advocate

As we enter another grim chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care advocate and journalist Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor recently spoke to Annenberg doctoral student and Steering Committee Member Adetobi Moses about the ways the media landscape, health organizations, and informal information channels and networks can adapt to provide adequate and lifesaving information that meets the needs of those in the global south as well as the global north.

It is widely assumed that statistics are the language and currency of the pandemic. What happens when a country doesn’t use statistics to address COVID-19? In June, for instance, Tanzania declared that the country was free of COVID but refused to publish updated statistics about COVID at the time. How can the media better assess and incorporate multiple ways of gathering and disseminating health information?

In the global south, President Magufuli of Tanzania shows his disdain for data and unsurprisingly said in June 2020 that the power of prayer helped purge the virus from Tanzania. In the global north, President Trump recently queried U.S. COVID-19 data and alleged that doctors were overcounting Covid-19 deaths to make more money. President Trump claimed that each coronavirus death was worth “like $2,000.”

When leaders make such false and unsubstantiated claims, they make a mockery of efforts to respond to this pandemic. It causes citizens to doubt the validity of data, and this could lead to the adoption of risky behaviors that could worsen the situation. Due to the free press in the U.S., it is easy for the media to get reliable data through different platforms and even question the President without any fear of harm. However, it is different in Tanzania due to the autocratic nature of the president and the likelihood of sanctions against government employees who act otherwise. National public health authorities would be discouraged from sharing data. In the case of Tanzania, there are other ways to assess, gather and disseminate health information. For instance, media outlets can get alternative sources of data from international NGOs (WHO, UNICEF, World Food program) and other civil society organizations working in the country. Other sources include anonymous interviews with clinicians (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory scientists, hospital cleaners, mortuary attendants and other cadres of health workers) who provide care to patients and can share case studies from their practices. Interviews with representatives of professional health associations such as The Medical Association of Tanzania would help ensure that true COVID-19 statistics are made available to the public.

How are information gathering and dissemination challenged in spaces where pronounced religious and ethnic differences make the source of health information just as important as the information itself? Can you identify broad collective collaborations that have been successful in imparting trusted and accessible health information related to the pandemic?

In March 2020, EpiAFRIC and NOI-Polls conducted the COVID-19 Disease Survey Report. The goal of the survey was to unpack perceptions of Nigerians early in the pandemic. One thousand respondents across the country were polled. The results showed that 84% of Nigerians were aware of COVID-19, while 26% said they were immune to COVID-19. Reasons for the perceived immunity against COVID-19 were: Because I am a Child of God (40%); I have a strong gene that repels it (30%); the weather is too hot for it (17%); I use a very strong herb that can keep me away from falling sick (8%); COVID-19 cannot infect Africans (5%).

It is of concern that such a significant proportion of respondents based their perceived COVID-19 on being children of God. To make matters worse, one of Nigeria’s top religious leaders, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, said that the 5G network is what is making people sick during this pandemic and not COVID-19. Such false claims by religious leaders happen in wealthy countries too. In February 2020, a guest (Dr. Sherrill Sellman) on U.S. Televangelist James Bakker’s Show claimed that a silver solution could cure strains of Coronavirus – viewers could buy the potion from James Bakker’s online store. These false claims are misinformation and fake news. They negatively affect health literacy and health-seeking behaviours. This calls for constant countering of these COVOID-19-related misinformation with the truth, because it is literally a matter of life and death.

In March 2020, I spoke at the Exploring Media Ecosystems Conference at the Samberg Conference Centre at MIT. The title of my talk was, “forward this to 10 people – the epidemic of health misinformation in Nigeria.”  In my talk, I shared examples of collaborations that have been successful in providing trusted and accessible COVID-19-related information: the South Africa-based organisation Africa Check works with different partners across the continent to counter COVID-19 misinformation and fake news; Nigeria’s National Public Health Institute, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, is working in partnership with Africa Check and Dubawa to counter fake news and improve the quality of information by directing people to relevant and credible sources of COVID-19. Another example of a partnership working to provide reliable COVID-19 information is that between my organization, Nigeria Health Watch, and Christian Aid UK, called #COVID19Truths. Through this partnership, we conduct media searches on common COVID-19 misinformation and then counter such through social media, blog articles and radio/TV shows. I would like to see more partnerships to train religious leaders and have them become spokespersons for COVID-19 truths. They are highly respected by the followers. Therefore, the right information coming from them would have more positive impacts.

In spaces in which mainstream media are more centralized or in which strong government checks monitor news and information, how can media practitioners on social media and beyond circumvent these checks to provide useful information to the public?

Media practitioners on social media and beyond can circumvent strong government (by using) these checks to provide useful information to the public. These are some ways to do that. Media outlets can get alternative sources of data from international NGOs (WHO, UNICEF, World Food Program) and other civil society organizations working in the country. Other sources include anonymous interviews with clinicians (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory scientists, hospital cleaners, mortuary attendants and other cadres of health workers) who provide care to patients and can share case studies from their practices. Interviews with representatives of professional health associations would help ensure that true COVID-19 statistics are made available to the public. In Nigeria Health Watch, we use social media a lot for providing the right COVID-19 information. We organize tweet chats and use infographics to create threads while tagging social media influencers via the #COVID19Truths project.

How has the global pandemic strained and exposed the limits of local information networks? How has it strengthened them?

Early in this pandemic, the World Health Organization described an infodemic – “an overwhelming amount of information on social media and websites. Some of it’s accurate. And some is downright untrue.”

Challenges to local information networks across Africa include the ease and speed of the spread of COVID-19-related misinformation and fake news via social media channels, especially WhatsApp. This implies a huge need for countering these falsehoods and therefore more funding. There are few local indigenous organisations funding such activities. Local information networks still rely on funding from western donors to get this done. Over-reliance on religious leaders for guidance by citizens is another challenge that local information networks face. There are many religious houses that believe in divine cure or prevention for illnesses. The kinds of COVID-19 misinformation from these religious organisations limit the efforts in countering them. Furthermore, the overt focus on COVID-19 negatively affects efforts in other disease areas. There is “covidization” of everything, as postulated by Professor Madhukar Pai of McGill University. This means reduced advocacy in tuberculosis, HIV, malaria and other tropical diseases. Lastly, government censorship of information in countries such as Tanzania makes COVID-19 difficult.

COVID-19 and the funding that comes with it help amplify the work done by local information networks in countering misinformation and fake news. International donors are realizing that local information networks understand the local context better and are trusted (more) by the locals than western media.

Has the pandemic highlighted the limits of the type of information gathering prioritized by the western media? If so, do you think this new scrutiny will last beyond the pandemic?

Western media have not been very objective in reporting the success recorded by countries in the global south. For instance, when western media report on countries that have done well in responding to the pandemic, they do not mention African countries. Even when they mention Asia countries, the focus is on South Korea, Vietnam and Hong Kong. I have written and spoken extensively on lessons that rich countries like the U.S. can learn from the global south. In a recent piece I co-authored with Maru Mormina, a colleague at the Ethox Centre, Oxford University, we wrote about “What developing countries can teach rich countries about how to respond to a pandemic.”

What might be the most productive geographic borders for the dissemination of information about a global pandemic? Should we normalize a focus on regional COVID data and information gathering over national COVID data?

We must focus on both regional and national COVID-19 data because you cannot have the latter without the former. COVID-19 regional data is really an aggregate of different national data. Most importantly, western media must report on every region and not just the regions with richer countries. Western media must tell stories of successes in the global south and not always focusing on the failures. They must stop portraying Africa as a poor “country” always in need of help. They must also be ethical when reporting on Africa and Asia. Comparing how western media report infectious diseases outbreaks in Africa (such as Ebola) and how they report COVID-19 in the West shows a huge ethical gap. For example, during the last Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Western media had no qualms showing photos of dead bodies littering the streets or abandoned on hospital hallways. However, they are more circumspect when reporting COVID-19 in the global north. Western media must show the same ethics in reportage of media no matter the location, because all lives are equal.

What are other ethical considerations we should consider as we strive to give a more robust and broad account of the pandemic globally?

Governments, NGOs, media outlets must continue to uphold that right COVID-19 data is a matter of life and death. Sharing misinformation and fake news could be deadlier than the disease. Nigeria Health Watch advocates for an active and responsible citizenship for health. Governments, NGOs and media outlets cannot win this battle against COVID-19 misinformation and fake news alone. This means that citizens must also be taught how to be ethical in the kinds of information they share. Indeed, not everyone who forwards misinformation is doing so for malicious reasons. Sometimes, they are misled in thinking they are doing good. One way to help citizens become ethical is using the Africa Check five steps to fight fake news and false information on WhatsApp. Users are urged to consider these five questions before forwarding messages:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Can I verify the claims?
  3. Does the info make me scared or angry?
  4. Does it include shocking pictures, video and/or audio?
  5. Am I sure this is not a hoax?

Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor is a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University and a 2006 Ford Foundation Fellow. He is also the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch, an organization dedicated to advocating for better and more accessible health care for Nigerians through social commentary, analysis and research. A strong advocate of Universal Health Care, he is the CEO of EpiAFRIC, an organization that operates at the cutting edge of health, technology, and policy. You can explore more of his work on a range of topics including health care, technology, mental health, documentaries, music, and entertainment on his website: https://www.ifeanyinsofor.com/ and follow him on twitter at @ekemma. 

Adetobi Moses is a first year doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. She studies how the media passes on cultural vestiges and values unto us as consumers, and how this is laid bare during times of political (domestic and global) crises. She is also interested in national narratives and founding myths and the ways they work invisibly to keep nations intact in the face of political threat.