Photograph — citizentv.co.ke

Pandemics are usually identified by their capacities to wreak much havoc to humanity, travelling fast across borders within the shortest time frames. They differ in behaviour but are known for high death tolls, while the lack of a cure creates even more fear. This leaves a common feature that trails their existence. Myths. A widely held but false belief or idea, about the pandemic in question. Myths tend to rise and thrive during a global emergency as a tool to give people a sense of control of the situation.

Recently, Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, distributed bottles of cognac as part of relief items to the poor, with words that it protects against the COVID-19 pandemic. A myth that has become popular among many poor people in Africa since the new coronavirus began in the region, bringing about alcohol abuse.

In a statement, Sonko said, “we are giving some small bottles of Hennessy in the food packs that we are giving to our people. From the research which has been conducted by the World Health Organization and various health organizations … alcohol plays a very major role in killing the coronavirus or any sort of virus.” This statement reveals that the governor has misinterpreted reports of the role of alcohol in the fight against coronavirus. Hennessey, the drink maker has, however, criticised the governor for propagating a myth. 

A statement from its Kenya’s office states, “the consumption of our brand or any other alcoholic beverage does not protect against the virus.” The wine company has encouraged Kenyan’s to adhere to best practices like the frequent washing of hands with soap.

On 14th of April, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report stating that “fear and misinformation have generated a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill the COVID-19 virus.” WHO categorically stated that “it does not.”  It further stated that alcohol is harmful to health in general, increases the risk of injury and violence, including intimate partner violence and could cause alcohol poisoning.

During the Black Death of the mid 14th century (1347) that killed 200 million people in the world within 4 years, wiping out almost 60 percent of Europe’s population, several myths emerged. Also, from 1665 to 1666 the Great Plague of London broke out and claimed. The plague resurfaced roughly every 20 years from 1348 to 1665—40 outbreaks in 300 years. Some of the myths surrounding the plague include that, the strong smell of flowers or perfume would stop the disease, the plague was a punishment by God for past sins committed, the painting of red crosses on isolated patients would cure them among several other myths.

Similarly, when the Ebola outbreak occurred in West Africa, several myths surface. Prominent among them include bathing with heavily salted water to prevent or cure the disease, home remedies like a mixture of hot chocolate, coffee, milk, raw onions and sugar could cure the disease, Ebola was an airborne disease among others.

Several factors are responsible for why myths thrive in the face of global outbreaks. Some of them are poor access to the right knowledge about the disease and the viral spread of misconceptions through diverse media. These key factors have degenerated to conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 in several countries. Leading to governments and corporations taking quick steps to distil wrong information.

Recently, Facebook-owned chat application, WhatsApp, announced plans to impose a strict new limit on message forwarding on its platform to one-fifth of its previous limit. The company sought to use the measure to slow down the circulation of fake news relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The change which does not completely prevent widespread forwarding of viral messages, however, huddles the process, making it a chore for a user to push a frequently forwarded message to multiple users at a time. 

In a statement on the 7th of April, 2020, WhatsApp spokesperson said, “We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation.” According to a news report by The Guardian, the company hopes to slow down some of the most viral messages on its platform, such as the widely spread myth that coronavirus is related to 5G. This misinformation has led to the vandalisation of more than 20 phone masts recently.

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