Health workers being inoculated in Abuja, Nigeria. Many African countries have rolled out vaccination campaigns/Photo: FMH

SPECIAL: African diaspora, COVID-19 and disinformation

By Dr Michael Nnaji*, Berlin Charité Hospital

The age of freedom that the internet ushered in has led, in my opinion, to a widespread abuse of the medium in recent times about the Covid-19 pandemic, as ideological battles rage between advocates of a rational, science-based approach and the “gut thinkers”.

As the saying goes: in war the first casualty is always the truth. However, for medical personnel working at the frontline and those bereaved during the pandemic, flat denial or downplaying the existence of the virus and the damage it has wrought on our lives represents a slap in the face.

As a frontline physician working at one of Europe’s largest hospitals, I have sometimes watched with dismay the peddling of and bandying of half-baked, uninformed viewpoints on the coronavirus pandemic.

Such disinformation, often emanating from marginal “experts”, quacks and conspiracy theorists, quickly finds wide access through social media and the internet. Their stock-in-trade appears to be to, among others, deny the existence of the virus, attribute the current high case fatality rates to some other obscure phenomena and to scent a worldwide government conspiracy (invariably orchestrated by the ubiquitous Bill Gates).

As a medical professional who has lost several patients to the disease, I can only err on the side of caution. Whatever the origins of the deadly virus, its novelty and devastation on our healthcare systems cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

In the age of liberty and near unfettered access to the internet, it is in order, even desirable and pertinent, to have balanced – and often opposing – viewpoints on an issue, since this helps us to guard against bigotry.
Unfortunately, the axiom of the truth taking longer to travel than a lie has been proven time and again, as conspiracy theories have aptly gone viral.

In the early stages of the pandemic, there were reports especially from the United States and the United Kingdom purporting that Blacks and other minorities are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus disease and its protean manifestations, implying some sort of underlying genetic mechanism(s).

In hindsight, it is safe to assume that this piece of information represents some kind of pseudoscience. We now know that the higher incidence and prevalence of the disease in Blacks and other minorities have their origins in an unfair social structure that pushes them to the margins of society.

Blacks, for starters, are more likely to engage in jobs that preclude them from social distancing (delivery services, gastronomy, low-level healthcare services, to name a few, quickly come to mind).

Moreover, owing to diabolical migration policies, among these groups are likely to be undocumented migrants, having neither access to the healthcare or educational system or the means to do so.

In addition, due to the victimisation and discrimination they face in the larger society, studies have shown that Blacks are more likely to develop stress-related diseases such as heart conditions and Type 2 diabetes that further put them at risk of severe Covid-19.

It comes therefore as no surprise that the largest number of infections and deaths have been observed in the US, where social injustice and racial disparity have been institutionalised and entrenched, a baleful legacy of slavery and America’s condescending mentality towards its minorities over decades.

As a potential silver lining to this pandemic, maybe the current public healthcare crises will force the powers-that-be around the world to implement policy recommendations from social science research that argues for a more equitable distribution of resources in society, since it clearly has ramifications beyond politics.

African communities in diaspora, for their part, would do well to set up forums and platforms for sharing information about risk factors and awareness of typical Covid-19 symptoms. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that it is possible to mobilise people for just causes virtually, with various online platforms such as Cisco Web, Zoom and Microsoft Teams coming to the fore.

The spread and perpetuation of baseless information is at best lazy, at worst self-defeatist.

Our Contributing Editor Michael Nnaji, a biochemist, physician and public health enthusiast, works at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin

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