KISII, Kenya Sep 26 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter) has petitioned stakeholders to rally behind a global fight against infodemic as an emerging threat particularly during COVID-19 pandemic.
Presiding over the official closure of a three-month training for journalists in Africa, ISAAA AfriCenter Director Dr. Margaret Karembu underscored the dangers posed by these emerging issues; ranging from climate change, food insecurity and malnutrition, the threat of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and the coronavirus pandemic.
The NCDs challenge and COVID-19 in particular, Dr Karembu was categorical, are a major cause of concern at the moment. They have, in fact, been termed a syndemic by one of their trainers in this series -Dr. Samuel Oji Oti, a Senior Program Specialist at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
She acknowledged that the Coronavirus disease is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected.
At the same time, the ISAAA AfriCenter Director regretted that the technology relied on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardizes measures to control the pandemic.
An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals.
Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.
Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.
Furthermore, disinformation is polarizing public debate on topics related to COVID-19; amplifying hate speech; heightening the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations; and threatening long-term prospects for advancing democracy, human rights and social cohesion.
Dr Karembu asked African countries to be more vigilant and be ready to address those challenges because they remain susceptible.
“We all must have encountered statements, accounts, rumours, half-truths, and myths around the novel coronavirus disease. These have instilled fear in the public. Many people consequently shunned hospitals despite the continuing challenge of NCDs,” Dr. Margaret cautioned.
With great concern, the director said a number of Africans have developed fear towards the vaccine expected to protect them against Covid-19, yet many are still uneasy about modern technologies being used to enhance agriculture and food systems.
It is against this backdrop that together with our partners, ISAAA AfriCenter decided to address this growing concern, she divulged.
“On May 26th this year, we embarked on the journey to comprehensively fight the threat of misinformation and disinformation, which are threats that have continuously hounded us and threaten to derail the gains that we continue to make in the fight against emerging issues that currently affect us,” Dr Karembu said.
She underscored the role of the media as critical in strengthening citizens’ resilience to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated health challenges. But there exist significant information gaps in communicating these issues.
This, she was emphatic, necessitated training a group of journalists capable of accurately and factually reporting on these issues through comprehensively researching and thoroughly fact-checking the information they have, then verifying it with the relevant authorities before sharing with the public to avoid the risk of misinformation or disinformation.
The result of this effort was the birth of Africa Life Science Knowledge (ALSK) Hub, a platform that sought to bring all the aforementioned stakeholders together and engage in an Africa Science Dialogue.
Through it, journalists are able to get training and capacity building to help them to thoroughly investigate, comprehensively interrogate, and fully articulate and understand science and health related issues before reporting to the public.