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Vaccine disinformation is greatest threat to African youth

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Vaccine disinformation is greatest threat to African youth

The multitude of problems that have stemmed from Covid-19 is being compounded by a startling vaccine hesitancy, fuelled by fake news on social media, and threatens to create a lost generation of African youth, says Ivor Ichikowitz.

It was not so long ago that the thought of a lost decade of African economic development would be pure fiction. Africa’s GDP growth was projected to accelerate to 4.0% in 2019 and another 4.1% in 2020. Improved economic development across Africa was forecast to be broad across the board, nonetheless with variations between economies.

The future looked bright. But that was then. Covid-19 is now.

Our population of 1.3 billion has experienced a third wave of infections since May, straining those on its frontlines across Africa. We remain a continent still struggling with the least amount of vaccines and the weakest healthcare systems.

Urgent pleas have recently gone out to the international community to make the case for a greater effort to get vaccines against Covid-19 to Africa; to prevent the continent from turning into a breeding ground for future variants, including those that may even prove to be resistant to existing vaccines.

Let’s be clear. More than 5.7bn vaccine doses have been administered globally; however, 73% of all doses have been administered in just 10 countries.

Africa is now expected to be able to vaccinate just 17% of its population by year-end, far below the 40% goal set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier this year.

“I think this [Covid-19] virus is winning,” suggested the head of Africa’s Centres for Disease Control (CDC), Dr John Nkengasong, recently. “As a continent, we are not winning. Today we have more than seven million cases with close to 180,000 deaths. And the death rates are all increasing very dramatically across the continent.”

It is further important to note the continued travel restrictions, and   extensive quarantine mandates for those from many African countries upon their arrival in the UK, EU and US (among other places), which seemingly disregard the efficacy of the vaccines available on the continent, leaving us subjugated unethically and without scientific merit to ‘red and amber’ lists, whilst the rest of the world seeks to return to business.

Yes, Covid-19 forced a startling pause to our next generation’s education and, in light of necessary lockdowns, served as a catalyst for en masse job losses country on country.

These are incredibly dangerous scenarios put upon what is collectively the world’s largest marketplace and youth demographic, proven to create desperation, disillusionment, criminal activity and in some cases, even civil unrest.

I’ve outlined desperate cries for vaccine equity; we know the challenge an unvaccinated Africa poses to itself and the rest of the world.

Myth versus reality

However, despite the scenarios I’ve just suggested, the African Youth Survey 2021, presently being carried out across the continent, reports that nearly 40% of Africa’s youth, across 15 countries, have stated that even if the vaccines were available, they would refuse them, if given the opportunity.The reason being? Our youth have been succumbing to fake news about Covid-19, thereby perpetuating the spread of the disease.

Indeed it has been confirmed that misinformation across the continent on illness has ‘gone viral’; this includes unfounded claims that young people are immune to it, that 5G technology has been contributing to the spread, or that coronavirus cannot withstand high temperatures in certain localities.

Take Kenya, for example, where it has been reported that anti-vaccine groups are waging a social media misinformation campaign to deliberately disrupt Kenya’s vaccines roll-out.

Fake news is being spread both unintentionally and by design. Dr John Nkengasong believes such misinformation has been a serious issue. He’s absolutely right.

Combating the ‘disinfodemic’ which threatens to keep us in a vicious cycle of Covid waves and locked within a downward spiral socio-economically, is our single biggest concern right now as a continent, in my view. 

The huge information gap and divide between Covid-19 myth and reality, a void presently being filled by toxic fake news, must be tackled through an effective and continent-wide public information and educational campaign. If we do not address the viral spread of fake news, our governments will bear much responsibility for the threat of a lost generation.

The WHO, AU, UN, African governments and health authorities, together with vaccine manufacturers and importantly, the media, must work together on an African-wide public information campaign that will educate young people and adults, providing simple and clear messages about the importance of vaccination, it’s safety and effectiveness.

There are signs of hope if you look close enough, countries such as Nigeria and Uganda have waged campaigns threatening criminal prosecution for those who spread fake news about Covid19 and vaccines.

Hashtags such as #FactsNotFear and addressing rumours and innuendo by flagging up the serious harm one can do to oneself by self-medicating as a response to the disease (for example, with chloroquine) are helping. Academic libraries in South Africa are playing a role in combating the spreading of misinformation by ensuring that people have access to high-quality content about the virus.

These valiant efforts, however, are simply not enough.

Take religious groups. They are important influencers in Africa. It is thus essential that African governments and public health institutions deploy a multi-layered approach to vaccine hesitancy, which includes collaborating with faith-based groups as well as community gatekeepers to reach vulnerable populations.

Social media’s moral obligation

Further, global social media organisations like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are failing in their responsibility to address fake news and conspiracy theories. There is no doubt that fake news is proliferated by these platforms and young people, especially young Africans, are more vulnerable to misinformation.

Today, social media is the second biggest source of news for young Africans. Thus Facebook can no longer claim that its business model is about “helping friends stay in touch with each other”. It is clearly being used to spread misinformation on a vast scale that now threatens the social and economic future of our continent.

Social media companies should take the lead in promoting accurate messages on their platforms and do so at their own cost. They have a moral obligation to do so. It is also an incredible opportunity for them to show how their platforms can be used for good.

Overcoming a lack of vaccine equity is, no question, a serious problem and it is a global problem. However, looking inward, if we do not address the challenges that fake news has created in Africa, we will get sick, we will stay sick and the potential for an African 21st century will remain a dream for an invisible generation of what should be, our brightest and best.

As reflected on the streets of South Africa in recent months, there is an unprecedented urgency to address rifts in information that pose the potential to stifle Africa’s future. We must together play a greater role in winning the fight being waged upon our next generation’s hearts and minds. 

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Written by Ivor Ichikowitz

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist. He is the Founder of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and the African Oral History Archive.

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