COVID19: Why Early Action Averts Fake News, By Ahmed Maiyaki
POLITICS DIGEST – While countries of the world continue to intensify efforts to contain the spread of the #COVID19 that has continued to grow exponentially in cases and fatality rate, the spread of fake news has also continued to pose greater danger against human survival.
Since the outbreak of the disease, different countries across the world have taken measures to mitigate the spread of the virus that has so far claimed the lives of multiple thousand across the world. Part of the measures taken by these leaders is dissemination of timely and ‘call to action’ messages that seek to guide people on the dangers and steps to take against Coronavirus.
Religious leaders across the world have also taken unprecedented measures to prevent the spread of the virus. These measures included the suspension of sacred acts of worship in holy sites in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Rome. Globally, people of different faiths were encouraged to worship from their homes to avoid congregational spread of COVID19.
Some countries and regions learned and leveraged from their bitter experiences of the recent past. For instance, countries like Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan had horrible experiences during SARS scourge of 2003. This encouraged them to act promptly and their citizens cooperated. These helped in reducing the spread of the Coronavirus in their countries. Timely and credible information dissemination and consistent multi-stakeholder engagements were critical factors that helped to contain the spread of the virus by these countries.
In Nigeria, however, things have took a different turn. While weakened and almost non-existent health system remains the biggest challenge so far, inaction by leaders and delayed information dissemination following the outbreak have put the lives and wellbeing of millions in jeopardy. This provided an opportunity for fake news peddlers to create panic among people who had already been eager for information about what was going on.
Save for the actions of some governors who moved early to protect their people, the situation would have turned out worse. With Lagos State as the epicentre of the virus in Nigeria, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, demonstrated leadership in managing the spread of the virus in Nigeria’s most populous state. His colleague of Kaduna, Governor Nasir Ahmad Elrufai was the first to invoke the Quarantine Act to enforce the social distancing approach against coronavirus. This was also a very impressive move.
In an unusual manner, the Governors of Kano, Rivers and Delta states had to exercise presidential powers by closing entry into their states through air, land and sea borders since it appears at the time the President was still ‘consulting’ on what measures to take. Earlier, the governors in the northwest region shut down the schools in their states to ensure social distancing. All these happened, because the Federal Government failed to show direction.
As commendable as the late decision of the Federal Government to set up the Presidential Task Force and other measures are, the delay to communicate these actions to Nigerians by its leader, President Muhammadu Buhari remains unimpressive. Though government’s spokesman, Femi Adesina insensitively argued that it was ‘a matter of style’ for the president not to address the nation at the time.
The delay in communicating vital information and give hope to citizens at a time of great uncertainty created a perfect condition for the spread of fake news on the virus. One of such speculations was that the president took ill and was flown abroad.
It was equally disturbing that while Governors of Bauchi, Kaduna and Oyo States boldly made their tests status public, the Presidency initially kept mum over the status of a principal aide to the President. This led to rumours about his health condition and subsequent sack by the President. By the time the SGF and the Presidential Aide both made public statements, the damage had already been done.
A prominent religious leader claimed that the virus was a western conspiracy against a religion. The inability of the government to enforce “stay at home” orders also gave him the audacity to lead congregational prayers. Government’s refusal to provide information increased anxiety to the extent that some citizens got killed after self-medicating with Chloroquine.
Amidst fears of #COVID19 spread, a medium falsely reported that Ondo State Government has sacked nurses working in the state for demanding payments of accumulated salaries. This was later discovered to be untrue, as facts emerged that the matter was resolved almost two months ago.
As cases of Coronavirus continue to rise in Nigeria, peddlers of fake-news also continue to hold sway; taking advantage of the gullibility of vulnerable members of the population that have become anxious. It is appalling that mischief makers will exploit the vulnerability of a section of the populace.
Post Coronavirus era, we must act to curtail the dangers of fake news, by providing enforceable laws that seek to bring to book its peddlers. Even in advanced democracies, freedom of speech come with limits, especially when other people’s rights and public safety is at stake.
Efforts by government in recent past to enact a law were opposed by some Civil Society Groups, as it was seen to be in contravention of the freedom of expression as guaranteed by the constitution and the International Charter of Freedom of speech. However, recent challenges posed by the spread of fake news suggests that the proposed legislation needs to be revisited.
As we continue to take measures to contain Coronavirus as a nation, we must learn to act proactively and communicate when it matters most. We must learn to know that there is nothing stylish about acting and speaking when it is convenient for us to do so. Leading people through a time of crisis such as this requires a proactive and consistent engagement with the led. In Crisis Communication, experts say ‘speed is your friend, and perfection is your enemy’.
Maiyaki is a Communication Specialist, and can be reached through [email protected]