From Magufuli to Trump: Here are the world’s COVID-19 skeptics

The word
The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken on November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

The Coronavirus was first reported in late-December 2019 in Wuhan, located in the Hubei province of central China. Since the onset of the pandemic, social media has been awash with information regarding the disease.

Misconceptions, theories and unverified data has been shared on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.

To showcase how misinformation can be perilous, I explore the premise that taking a steam bath reduces the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19.

This form of COVID-19 denialism was spread by the late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli. Besides advocating for steam inhalation, he also called for prayers and opposition to vaccines as remedies.

However, using OSINT techniques, I began investigating the claims by President John Pombe Magufuli across social media channels. I detected a flurry of messages from his April 22, 2020 address which culminated into the misinformation on using steam as a treatment for COVID-19.

A prominent coronavirus sceptic, almost 70 per cent of posts related to COVID-19 from Magufuli’s communication were negative.

He not only disapproved of vaccines, but also disregarded the containment measures. However, a background check on the World Health Organization website yielded a different view.

COVID-19 has no known treatment, and the claims by Magufuli are not true.

His Burundian counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza, a COVID-19 sceptic, died of what the government described as a heart attack.

His death was described as unexpected. Nkurunziza, like Magufuli, left more questions than answers on his deathbed.

The mystery surrounding their deaths piles up on their speculative nature when dealing with the virus. In Burundi, for instance, sporting activities and political rallies went on.

Such was the case in India, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi joining the bandwagon of COVID-19 sceptics.

He prioritized politics in outright defiance of interventions to flatten the curve. As it would later turn out, this was met with deadly consequences- a price for the ignorance in downplaying the pandemic and its effects on human life.

No wonder the country’s Medical Association’s Vice President Dr Navjot Dahiya referred to Modi as a COVID-19 ‘superspreader.’ The Tanzania, Burundi and India cases are not isolated.

In Brazil, the pandemic spread like wildfire, thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro. He not only vetoes legislation that would have okayed the use of face masks by religious pilgrims, but also obstructed efforts to enforce protocols such as social distancing. He was aggressive in promoting hydroxychloroquine- a malaria drug- as a ‘treatment for the virus.’

Such was the case for Belarus, whose long-time president Alexander Lukashenko has remained a sceptic, opting for denialism rather than action in the wake of the pandemic.

Preventive measures were thrown out of the window as he furthered claims that working in the field, drinking vodka or visiting the sauna are remedies for COVID-19.

Then came President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico; a country that has seen a spike in cases of the virus. With the country suffering from its patchwork of healthcare services, President Obrador did little to avert the spread of the disease. To him, the situation was less grave than the actual turn of events on the ground.

While he went about resisting the need for a lockdown, like India’s Modi, he held mask-less rallies. The result? Months of suffering in Mexico. The adverse effects of the virus swept across the nation, amid a series of shutdowns. Last but not least, former US President Donald Trump mastered scepticism and denialism.

Trump propagated misinformation and an anti-science rhetoric, resulting in disproportionate death and illness among Americans.

His incoherent leadership notwithstanding, Trump’s scathing attacks on China turned into a racial profiling of the origin of the virus. Racial epithets such as the ‘China virus’ and the ‘kung flu’ were made prominent by Trump.

So here are a few tips on how to help fight misinformation.
• Verify images with reverse image search online.
• On desktop, you can use RevEye’s Plugin, InVid’s video verification plugin or TinEye on mobile phones.
• Last but not least, with observation skills and a bit of Googling, you can use geolocation to figure out where a photo or video was taken.

To help end the infodemic around COVID-19, you can report cases of misinformation by filing a complaint on the Ministry of Health or WHO websites.

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Story By Teddy Otieno
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