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Opinions of Sunday, 22 March 2020

Columnist: Simon Kolawole

Covid-19 and the fake news virus

Have you heard the news? If you chew heaps of garlic, gulp litres of chloroquine, drink water every 15 minutes, stay in saunas for one hour, take hot bath every two hours, stop eating ice creams, swallow vitamin C tablets every minute, slurp bowls of lemon water at every opportunity, and smoke marijuana more than Fela, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh combined, do you know you can still be infected with Covid-19? If you don’t know this fact, you must have been believing everything you have been reading on social media, particularly WhatsApp, since the coronavirus entered Nigeria. Not only do you believe the myths, you probably share and re-share them.

There is no doubt that social media has lowered our IQ. We have become so gullible we do not ask simple questions anymore. We even choose to misapply the basic human instinct of scepticism, preferring to believe lies and half-truths. Some clown will just sit somewhere, compose a message, attribute it to one professor from one fictitious university and share it on WhatsApp or Facebook. We ignore the simple task of googling the name to verify if such a character actually exists. Instead, we begin to distribute the fake news to a thousand contacts in various WhatsApp groups. Those ones too will re-share to a thousand more contacts. It goes viral.

Interestingly, that is exactly how a virus spreads. It usually starts from the index cases who then pass it on to their immediate contacts, and their immediate contacts pass it on to other contacts. Before you know it, hundreds are infected; they, in turn, infect others. In a short while, you will be counting thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of cases. The coronavirus that started from Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has moved from infecting only 60 people and killing only two patients to infecting 300,000 and killing 13,000 worldwide in just three months! We still do not know when it will peak and begin to subside. At this stage, we can only hope for quick solutions.

I first read of the virus on January 18, 2020 on the BBC website. The headline was: “New virus in China ‘will have infected hundreds’.” The opening paragraphs: “The number of people already infected by the mystery virus emerging in China is far greater than official figures suggest, scientists have told the BBC. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but UK experts estimate a figure nearer 1,700. Two people are known to have died from the respiratory illness, which appeared in Wuhan city in December.” Instantly, an alarm went off in my head. Why? Anything that affects China will definitely affect the rest of the world, Nigeria inclusive.



Why has Covid-19 been able to spread globally so speedily and widely, sparing no race, continent, religion or class? From all the materials I have read and digested so far, I have indentified three key factors. One, Covid-19 is contagious even when the carrier of the virus is not showing the symptoms such as fever, sore throat, dry coughs and difficulty in breathing. That means one can be infected today and pass it on to another person same day — just like HIV. Inevitably, one person can directly infect hundreds of people in a single day and they, too, can directly infect hundreds same day, and so on and so forth. I believe this is the biggest factor in the wild-fire speed of the pandemic.

Two, the incubation period of Covid-19 is typically 14 days, although there have been cases of 28 days. Compare this to the other two coronaviruses, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which both have an incubation period of averagely five days. A person infected with MERS or SARS has only five days to transmit it before showing symptoms and getting isolated, compared to a carrier of Covid-19 who may have a whole two weeks. SARS started in China in 2002 while MERS started in Jordan in 2012. Covid-19 is believed to be a mutation of SARS. Mutations could be deadlier since they are strange to the immune system.

Three, Covid-19 survives outside the body system, according to scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the US National Institutes of Health. They conducted an experiment and concluded that when someone coughs or sneezes, the virus remains viable in aerosols for at least three hours; on plastic and stainless steel, the virus can survive for three days; on cardboard, 24 hours; and on copper, four hours. So even if one doesn’t have direct contact with the infected person, one can contract the virus from plastics, stainless steels and currency notes. This should explain why it has caught the world unawares and is spreading rapidly.

The world might have been spared this plague if the Chinese authorities had been more straightforward from the beginning. Dr Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old Chinese doctor who alerted his colleagues that some patients were showing signs of a new SARS-like illness in early December, was arrested by the police and reprimanded for “spreading rumours”, “seriously disrupting social order” and “breaching the law”. He himself was later diagnosed with Covid-19 at the end of January. He died in February, causing national grief. The Chinese authorities also reportedly told the World Health Organization (WHO) in January that the virus was not transmissible person-to-person.



If only the Chinese authorities had been more forthcoming, we would not be going through this trauma. But the trauma is now being exacerbated on social media by mischief makers trying to create panic with fake news and false posts. These can only mislead people and worsen matters. For instance, while it is true that Vitamin C boosts the immune system, it is not a treatment for the coronavirus. Taking too much Vitamin C can lead to diarrhoea. Also, you must have seen a meme that says there are no cases of Covid-19 in Jamaica, suggesting that it is because they smoke marijuana. As at yesterday, there had been 19 cases and one death in Jamaica.

You must have received the WhatsApp broadcast from “Dr Khin Maung J” (of no fixed address) who said you should eat plenty ginger, hot chillies and pepper to combat the virus. “Dr Khin Maung J” says the virus will die in temperatures of between 26 and 27 degrees. He said you should send the message to 200 contacts as your service to humanity. It is true that SARS began to recede during summer time and eventually fizzled out in 2004, but Covid-19 is a new coronavirus and we still do not know how it will behave in the coming months. In any case, we now have cases in tropical regions in increasing numbers, so “Dr Khin Maung J” cannot be right.

Professor Sally Bloomfield of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (you can goggle his name), told the BBC that it will take 60 degrees Celsius to kill the coronavirus (by contrast, Maiduguri — the hottest part of Nigeria — is currently experiencing 40 degrees). If you expose yourself to such heat in saunas or hot baths, you may just die along with the virus. Fake news can kill — just like Covid-19. All it needs is for it to go viral. Did you also hear the one about garlic? Of course, doctors say it is good for your health. It kills microorganisms. But no study has yet proved that it prevents or cures Covid-19. In fact, if you eat too much of it, you may end up in the hospital.

You must have heard about the chloroquine catastrophe in Lagos. Yes, hydroxychloroquine has been tested on some patients in China and it has proved effective as a treatment (note that Covid-19 has no cure yet; what the doctors do is to treat the symptoms, such as cough, cold, fever and pneumonia, as they manifest in the patient). Chloroquine interferes with the ability of the virus to replicate in body cells. This is good news. However, only a doctor can prescribe it for whoever has the virus. Unfortunately, my people started drinking Chloroquine without having Covid-19 and without doctor prescription. Many of them are now hospitalised with critical conditions.



Despite the fake news and mass panic around us, I will leave us with some words of comfort today. One, most of those who contract the virus will not die. Mortality rate is still around 7 percent. Many will have only mild to moderate symptoms and recover. Two, there have been only five reported deaths in Sub Sahara Africa, so maybe it is indicative of the likely mortality rate on the continent. I said “maybe”. Three, the lockdown has worked in Wuhan, where the virus has reportedly slowed down. That means lockdowns work. Four, those who have the virus in Nigeria are recovering well. There is yet no critical case or death. Let us live with the positive news and take courage from there.

In conclusion, I would like to appeal to us all that we need to fight the coronavirus as well as the fear, panic and fake news that come with it. It is very important that we do not distract those doing tasking jobs day and night to manage the situation. Spreading fake news and unverified information can only worsen panic and fear. It is also very important for every one of us to know that we all have roles to play in fighting off the pandemic. We must all take precautionary measures, such as proper hygiene and physical distancing, in order to help check the spread. We do not have a fraction of the facilities necessary to manage a massive outbreak in Nigeria. Our salvation lies in prevention.

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