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Stamping out misinformation in Kenya's COVID-19 fight

Maureen Akinyi has experienced a lot in her seven years as a front-line volunteer for Kenya Red Cross - but nothing like this.

"It's different [now] because I'm scared. Personally, it is also difficult," she said.

Still, the health crisis unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic is not stopping Akinyi. 

As one of Kenya Red Cross's 160,000 country-wide volunteers, she has been setting out onto the streets of Nairobi to provide critical information about COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In the centre of the Kenyan capital, she walks through streets lined with shops and open-air markets, demonstrating hand-washing and explaining physical distancing.

A colleague translates her health messages through sign-language for those who are deaf.

"I love giving back to the community. Financially I cannot, but I can give my services," Akinyi said.

The 33-year-old has a small clothes shop but as a volunteer, she spares whatever time she can during the week to give back to the community.

She speaks to tuk-tuk drivers, homeless children, shoe-shiners and other informal workers who say staying home, as encouraged by the government as part of coronavirus containment measures, is not an option.

One of them is Jeff Okembo, a motorbike driver, who used to make $30 a day driving commuters around town. Now he makes $5.

"I fear, but I love my job because this helps me survive," said Okembo, who has hand sanitiser strapped to his motorbike for himself and customers.

"For now, I don't have another option," he added. "We pray for this to be over so we can continue with normal life. Things are very tough."

As of Saturday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, Kenya had registered 336 coronavirus cases, 14 deaths and 94 recoveries. The government has rolled out a series of drastic measures to slow the spread of the disease, including suspending travel in and out of the country, banning religious and social gatherings and imposing a nationwide curfew between 7pm and 5am which, at times, has been enforced violently by the police. 

As Kenya steps up its fight against the pandemic, misinformation is also spreading fast. This time around, the work of people like Akinyi also involves convincing people that the virus is real.

"I don't think people have realised the disease is here," said Dorothy Anjuri, who coordinates Kenya Red Cross's psychosocial response.

"We have people in the informal settlement thinking this disease is not for people in Kenya."

Anjuri noted the focus was now on driving facts home and providing support amid the psychological fallout of the pandemic.

Experts say fear drives misinformation, with people finding comfort in believing the virus only affects others. 

Claims that the virus only belongs to the rich; that Black people cannot get it; or that drinking alcohol can protect against it - they all need to be combatted as they emerge, explained Anjuri, alongside the usual health messages on the importance of hand-washing and physical distancing.

Stamping out misinformation is critical to keeping infections low and avoiding overwhelming an already fragile healthcare system.

But false information circulating on social media does not help.

Nelson Kwaje, leading a digital team at #Defyhatenow, an organisation tackling online hate speech and now diffusing COVID-19 misinformation, called out false "remedies" such as boiling onions with lemon or taking tea without sugar.

"There is also misinformation related to government directives and public announcements. This could be as simple as people not understanding it, or misinterpretation of the directive," said Kwaje, citing those who confused drinking alcohol, which does not protect against the virus, with using alcohol-based hand sanitiser, some types of which could be an alternative to hand-washing with soap and water.

"We are very careful not to use our platform to give misinformation more views," said Kwaje.

"We want to fact check information that is harmful, but we're also training users online to detect misinformation and be critical thinkers and question things."

For many in informal settlements, where healthcare and clean water are scarce and costly, facts about coronavirus are still desperately needed.

Faith Atieno, founder of Art 360 Gallery in the sprawling Kibera slum, said her group decided to make murals to raise awareness.

"This gave us the opportunity to do something in our community, so that they can take this issue of coronavirus seriously, and make Kibera a corona[virus]-free community," she said.

The group is looking for materials and donations to continue their awareness-raising efforts.

Jump in gender-based violence

Stigma is growing, too, with those released from quarantine often shunned by their communities.

Meanwhile, free counselling hotlines have registered an uptick in fear and anxiety around finances, resentment about quarantine and movement restrictions, as well as about the dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Alberta Wambua, executive director at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), a charitable trust of the Nairobi Women's Hospital, said they registered 363 new gender-based violence cases in March, up from 290 in January.

"This is really huge for us - these are the numbers we would see during an electoral period or where there is a certain crisis," said Wambua.

"And you can imagine that this is the start of the COVID-19 situation, so it might get worse."

Among issues raised on the GVRC hotlines are intimate partner violence due to economic stress - partners who have lost jobs and are unable to provide for their families - and anxious women unable to attend support groups or to go out and work with children at home.

"We doubt that all survivors have been able to access medical treatment," said Wambua.

"For intimate partner violence, the alleged perpetrator would be within the house, so maybe survivors are not able to leave the home setting."

And then there are the challenges surrounding follow-up medical treatment.

"Survivors are scared. There are fears and misinformation around coming to the hospital," said Wambua, with survivors worried about catching COVID-19 more unlikely to go to hospital or report incidents to the police.

"We were talking about taking services to women and girls where they are, but of course with our kind of GBV [Gender-Based Violence] services, that's also a problem because there is stigma and discrimination around it," she said.

Back in the streets of Nairobi, Akinyi keeps winding her way through market places and bus stops in the city's central business district.

"For those who can stay at home, well and good. For those who cannot stay at home, let us do the right thing," she said, urging everyone to take the right preventive measures, in the hope that that will be enough.

This article was originally published by Al Jazeera.


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