Luanda – Joana Domingos had long ceased to believe the official COVID-19 information coming from national authorities in her native Angola.
The mother of two had become convinced that the COVID-19 vaccine was part of a global plan to annihilate the most vulnerable – disinformation she had gleaned from messages circulated through mobile phone texts.
“I was very confused and scared about the possibility that my children and I would die from COVID-19,” she recalls, describing how she barricaded herself and her family inside their home in the country’s capital, Luanda. “I decided to stop working, ban my children from going back to school, and eliminate any chance of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus.”
The dangers of disinformation for both public health and the pandemic response in Angola led the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health to create the COVID-19 Alliance Project, a new initiative to protect the population from the dangers of rumours and misrepresented information.
Launched in July 2020 to ensure regular monitoring of discourse around the pandemic on social networks, the COVID-19 Alliance Project has established Factos Saúde, a platform for managing disinformation that enlists a strategic network of partners to monitor and quickly respond to disinformation, and to engage in dialogue on social networks and in communities.
The Factos Saúde platform has been essential for tracking rumours, ensuring social listening, and supporting education and awareness-raising around health and well-being. Since its launch, the platform has produced and disseminated 150 debunking materials, which have been widely shared on Facebook and WhatsApp.
“The initiative to fight COVID-19 misinformation has been critical not only in tracking and dispelling rumours but also it has lent credence to support the voice of the health authorities in the fight against this pandemic,” says Dr Djamila Cabral, WHO Representative in Angola. “ Furthermore, this initiative also makes it possible to identify the issues, doubts and concerns of the population that need specific action to be resolved.All of us have a responsibility to ensure that our populations are properly educated and protected from false and unsubstantiated health information.”
Factos Saúde shares a weekly report on dissemination with partners involved in the pandemic response and uses its popular Facebook page to dispel disinformation. Plans are in the works to expand to Twitter and Instagram, and to create a WhatsApp hotline.
To ensure the sustainability of the new rumour management approach, WHO, in conjunction with the Alliance for Infodemic Management, is supporting infodemic management training for Ministry of Health technicians involved in the pandemic response. To date, five training sessions have been organized to prepare technicians to timely detect and counter health misinformation rumours.
With WHO support, the Ministry of Health has announced plans to build on this experience to create a Rumour Management Laboratory that can track, monitor and debunk health-related rumours, particularly in situations of health crises and emergencies other than COVID-19. The intention is that this facility can play a vital role in promoting health and wellbeing for Angolans.
“WHO will continue to work to support the authorities to ensure that people are protected from misinformation, a phenomenon that hinders the pandemic response efforts and disrupts the health of our families,” says Dr Cabral.
One year on, Joana says she is in a healthier, better-informed place.
“I think that if I had had access to Factos Saúde at that time,” she says, “I would not have taken hasty decisions, nor suffered from fear of the measures recommended by the health authorities.”