fake news
Picture: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Government is working tirelessly to deal with the danger of fake news in the fight against COVID-19 and the vaccination plan.

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, believes that while social media is beneficial for communicating, it can be easily hijacked to spread false claims about inoculation.

“What complicates the fight against COVID-19 is that while people are facing the real threat of losing their lives, fake news and misinformation are causing them to be paranoid, and to doubt the usefulness of vaccines and other public health interventions,” the Minister said.

Speaking during a virtual conference aimed at dispelling myths about vaccines and Coronavirus variants earlier this week, Nzimande said the discussion underscores the urgency with which government is responding to the pandemic.  

“The current environment is fraught with all manner of conspiracy theories that often result in poor decision-making at both individual and group level.”

Among these are the 5G myths that have led to cell phone towers being destroyed in some parts of the country, Nzimande said.

“The public must be informed that the COVID-19 virus is purely biological and has no roots in any Fourth Industrial Revolution technology like 5G.”

Vaccines

The Minister bemoaned how vaccines are being branded as another “pandemic” that should be avoided at all costs.

“Yet, vaccines have been providing immunity against infectious diseases for over 200 years, in the process saving millions of lives across the globe.”

Nzimande assured citizens that there is nothing to worry about, as vaccines are backed by science, along with peer-reviewed research and multiple and independent trials.

“This is to ensure that vaccines administered to the public are safe and efficacious.”

The Minister cited Edward Jenner, who used cowpox material to create immunity against smallpox more than 200 years ago.

“This point is made to remind the public that vaccines and vaccination did not arise with the outbreak of COVID-19. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that there will be other pandemics that will need appropriate vaccines in future.”

Nzimande said government is working towards collaboration with China, Russia and Cuba in the areas of lifesaving shots and vaccine development.

The Minister is also advocating for African traditional medicine to be recognised at the highest level in the fight against COVID-19.

Social impact

A Professor at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Priscilla Reddy, said the pandemic has had a profound social impact on all South Africans and people across the globe.

“If the myths are not dealt with, we will find that vaccination coverage will fall short of the 67% that is targeted, and the virus will be widely transmitted as we move forward.

“Lockdown fatigue will ensue with reduced adherence to the social behavioural interventions.”

Reddy said this could lead to further mutation of the new variant and reluctance from citizens to accept the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Professor said vaccination is an important method of preventing infectious disease and second only to clean water in terms of its public health impact.

“Myths concerning vaccines are damaging. Even as the availability of vaccines increases, if people don’t accept the vaccine because of these myths, you’re not going to win the battle.”

Reddy said the negative aspects of vaccines tend to get more publicity compared to factual information.  

The Professor believes that issues of public confidence and trust must be looked into.

“This is a devastating and scary pandemic, and it shouldn’t be aggravated by the types, methods and styles of information that the public are exposed to.”

Reddy said the public should be convinced that the conveyers of information have their best interests at heart, rather than personal gains and self-interest.

“Controversies and arguments [among officials] concerning the science [behind the vaccine]… should be handled discreetly, as they can further increase confusion and breach trust.”

She warned that unclear messages from government or any healthcare organisation will adversely weaken adherence to lockdown measures.

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