The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched its Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) initiative on Thursday, December 3, 2020.
The launch was held on zoom owing to COVID-19 restrictions.
This is coming amid the growing spread of COVID-19 in the African continent with over 2.1 million confirmed cases, more than 1.8 million recoveries & 52,000 deaths cumulatively.
With the spread of disease came the spread of COVID-19 related misinformation on social media, blogs, online news site and even traditional media. Hence, the need for this initiative to tackle such misinformation.
According to the United Nations (UN) Pulse (a Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence), COVID-19 Information has been viewed over 270 billion times online and mentioned almost 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region between February and November 2020.
The AIRA initiative, the first of its kind, brings together inter-governmental, governmental and non-state organisations across the African continent. The alliance consists of 7 members and 5 participating and supporting entities.
These member organisations are the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the United Nations Verified initiative, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Global Pulse and the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Participating bodies are Dubawa, Africa Check, Agence France-Presse Fact Check, PesaCheck, and Meedan.
Announcing the launch of this initiative, Dr Moeti Tshidi spoke on the dual challenge the pandemic brings. She said the dual challenge is fighting the virus and fighting misinformation around the virus while noting the need to properly address both challenges.
“In Africa and globally, we have faced an unprecedented dual challenge in the response to COVID19. We are fighting a highly infectious, dangerous virus, and highly infectious, dangerous misinformation.
“Misinformation harms people’s physical & mental health. It increases stigma & anxiety, threatens precious health gains, & reduces adherence to preventive measures like wearing masks.
“Through this new Alliance, we will work with fact-checkers & the media to correct misconceptions, conspiracy theories & rumours, & with technical experts to make sure people can access accurate, concise, timely information.”
Also speaking at the launch, the UN secretary-general for global communication, Melissa Fleming, noted that the UN realised when CIVID-19 came that it was faced with a communication crisis seeing this was the first pandemic in the social media age.
“When the COVID19 pandemic hit the world, we realised that we were faced with an unprecedented global public health crisis. But at the same time, it was clear to us at the UN that we were facing an unprecedented communication crisis as well.
“We are living in a polluted media landscape that has toxic misinformation and disinformation mixed in with the good information.”
Also, Dr Ben Adeiza from IFRC spoke on the importance of the public to put an end to this pandemic.
“Epidemics start & end in communities. It is the actions of our community members that will either end or sustain an outbreak. This is why we move from static messages to working with communities.”
Mr Guy Berger noted the need to put out enough information not just information but reliable information to curb the spread of falsehoods.
“Where there is a shortage of open public & reliable information, you have fertile fields where falsehoods can flourish, especially on private channels like social messaging without any credible counter” he said.
UNICEF Africa, represented by Natalie Fol, noted how its work has expanded into dealing with misinformation.
“This is a new but very fast expanding area of work at @UNICEF. We look forward to joining forces through the alliance to collectively limit the spread of harmful health misinformation & disinformation” she said.
Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, from Africa CDC, spoke on the importance of information to our daily lives.
“Information is very important for our daily lives. When that information is not accurate, it becomes harmful. When health information is corrupted, it has the capacity to not just affect lives but also to claim lives.”
The chief editor of Africa Check, Lee Nwiti, spoke on the importance of collaboration in the fight against misinformation.
“Collaboration is crucial if we are to have a chance at informing decisions whether at the national, community or personal level. This is why we are keen to leverage our strengths as part of this multi-stakeholder alliance” he said.3