CORONAVIRUS IN NIGERIA: False Claims to Ignore

Two months down the confirmation of the index Coronavirus case in Nigeria, the social media has been awash with various claims ranging from preventive to curative measures against the deadly novel virus.

Exploring the trending narratives that have emerged from disinformation in Nigeria, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has witnessed series of interesting developments including the sharp rise in the number of deaths in Kano, the country’s second-largest city located in the North-West region.

While the situation in Kano state has been marred by poor communication around the COVID-19 response, as well as new regulation designed to target fake news, which unfortunately has the potential to be used to suppress conversations around the disease, this piece will look at some of the significant developments.

Over 200 deaths in a single cemetery in Kano?

Kano state is a  hotbed for misinformation, with a vast appetite for disinformation. On April 22, 2020, fact-checkers at the CDD spotted a 30-second Hausa video posted by Kelsoblog9ja on Facebook claiming that 200 people had been buried in the city of Kano.

The video captioned: “Here is another burial of 200 people in Kano – whom the cause of death is not known”, showed many people moving in and out of a cemetery while a commentator narrated an assumed scenario.

Speaking in Hausa, the speaker said: “Look at how a cemetery looks like a wedding place, seeing dead bodies has become common, forgive us oh God, have mercy on oh God, we repenting oh God!”

Our investigations revealed that contrary to the video circulating, there was no funeral for 200 people in Kano on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

The closure of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) office and poor record-keeping complicates matters.  CDD fact-checkers visited different cemeteries to get accurate details of the number of deaths in the State. 

CDD checks showed several interesting phenomena; on the one hand, residents of Kano are generally ambivalent to the danger posed by COVID-19. However, a spate of high profile and ‘strange’ deaths, spurred the production of panic-driven misinformation.

The spike of deaths in Kano also forced the federal government to launch an investigation into the occurrence as the state governor refuted claims of mass burials. It is clear that the unfolding situation in Kano state, is sensitive, and the lack of state capacity and infrastructure, there is a strong likelihood of continued health misinformation in the State.

Please see our fact-check here.

Lagos Government releasing lists of hospitals exposed to COVID-19 cases

On Thursday, April 23, 2020, CDD fact-checkers spotted a statement circulating online alleging that the Lagos State Government had released a list of health facilities in the State exposed to Coronavirus (COVID-19) patients.

The purported list was shared primarily on the WhatsApp medium, which is a massive channel for the distribution of disinformation.

During a briefing held on Sunday, April 19, 2020, the State Commissioner for Health, Professor Akin Abayomi, said that about 17 hospitals in the State have reached out to the Ministry for assistance after being exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) patients. There was, however, no mention of hospital names by the Minister.

A few days after the announcement by the Lagos State’s health minister, a list of 17 private health facilities in Lagos made its way to online blogs and social media platforms.

Interestingly, the Lagos State Government reacted to the news in a statement on Thursday, April 23, 2020, which urged members of the public to disregard it. Abiola Idowu, the Secretary of Health Facility Monitoring and Accreditation Agency (HEFAMAA), in Lagos, also confirmed that the list did not emanate from the agency or the Ministry of Health.

Please see our fact-check here.

COVID-19: Widespread ‘FG’s Relief Collation Form’ is a Scam

Since President Buhari revealed the existence of relief funds, there has been an explosion in the fraudulent attempts to scam Nigerians into parting with their sensitive details, using the bait of COVID-19 palliatives. This past week has not been different. On Monday, April 20, 2020, CDD fact-checkers received several WhatsApp broadcast messages containing the link to a Google Form with the title ‘Relief Disbursement Collation Form’ for verification by members of the public.

The form which bears the Federal Government of Nigeria had a deadline for Monday, April 20, 2020. The online Google form requested applicants to fill their personal details, including their residential address and bank account numbers.

Following the blow to the economy, millions of Nigerians, many of whom work in the informal sector have been affected by the pandemic and as such for COVID-19 relief from the Federal Government.

These Nigerians have also become susceptible to fraudulent schemes which promise the delivery of relief funds with a dubious plan to extract personal information from unsuspecting members of the public. The scammers use the identity of influential and wealthy individuals and government agencies to lure potential victims.

This is not the first time such claims on possible monetary relief has been made. Between March 25 and 28, 2020, a WhatsApp broadcast message went viral with the claim that the Federal Government was set to pay citizens N8,500 per week to sustain the stay at home directive for the containment of the Coronavirus pandemic. A similar link was created for people to register for the scheme.

In the same week, CDD fact-checked a similar false claim that a former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, would disburse N10,000 weekly to Nigerians as palliative through the Atiku Foundation. This week, another source had alleged that the former President Olusegun Obasanjo has personally decided to send N5,000 directly to every Nigerians’ account using their BVN.

All these claims which follow the same pattern have turned out to be false.

The rise in popularity of these fraudulent messages led the Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Digital & New Media, Tolu Ogunlesi, to caution the public against filling such forms.

Ogunlesi wrote: ‘’This Relief Disbursement Collation Form being circulated is a SCAM. NEVER EVER, under any circumstances, give out your BANKING + PERSONAL details to ANY online ‘data collection’ form. Never. Don’t do it. Don’t even wonder if it’s genuine or not. Just don’t do it!’’.

Read the complete fact-check here.

CONCLUSION

This week has seen how the danger of weak governance structures, as are the case in Kano state, contribute to a burgeoning information crisis, with significant adverse effects.

The erosion of public trust in institutions is not helped by state governors denying the apparent rise in deaths; neither is the evident lack of health expertise which led to several NCDC staff in contracting COVID-19 in Kano, leading to the eventual closure of the office.

This closure had a ripple effect of eliminating the only method of tracking the spread of the virus. So, not only do we have confusing and divisive information coming from the state government, but the lack of testing capacity means it is challenging to build a clear picture of what is happening.

The socio-economic condition of the majority of Nigeria as laid bare is the unfortunate rise in scam messages which also raises inquiries on the actual process of disbursement of the relief funds. The lack of clarity on how the funds are being disbursed contributed to the rise in misinformation.

As we head into the last week of federal lockdown for the states of Lagos, Ogun and FCT, there is less clarity than ever on the actual data on the spread of the disease, and following that, a clear sense of what the road forward will be. Therefore it is only like that along with the virus; disinformation will continue to spread.