By Sam Bojarski
False information about the novel coronavirus has circulated “ad nauseum” in Haiti, ranging from conspiracy theories about testing a vaccine on Haitians, to recipes for medicinal teas inspired by Catholic priests.
In Haiti, thousands of health care workers are making an effort to educate community members about coronavirus and dispel common misconceptions. While a lack of education on the virus has contributed to many of these misconceptions, technology has facilitated the spread of false information, as it has throughout the world.
“We’re always trying to remain ahead of the curve by sharing information (about) what we’re doing, trying to be as transparent and informative as we can to the public and media. And so whenever we see some type of misinformation we always do try to correct it and address it,” said Cynthia Baptiste, who works for Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian sister organization of the nonprofit Partners in Health (PIH).
Zanmi Lasante is treating many of Haiti’s coronavirus patients in Mirebalais, where the security situation has grown tense for health care workers. Because of this, the Haitian Times has decided to withhold Baptiste’s real identity.
Social media isn’t responsible for every misconception about coronavirus, but platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp have made it easier for false information to spread.
The news that Haiti recorded its first coronavirus cases on March 19 sent many internet users into a panic, according to the fact-checking website T-check Haiti. One video that began to circulate on social networks depicted a man, who was supposedly one of Haiti’s first recorded cases, dying on a hospital bed. It was later discovered that the video was not filmed in Haiti.
False rumors also circulated about former Haitian President Michel Martelly testing positive for coronavirus in the United States.
Dr. Irene V. Pasquetto, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is working with colleagues to monitor the spread of fake coronavirus news on social messaging apps. The team has conducted surveys with about 4,000 people in Nigeria, India and Italy, focusing on Whatsapp, the most popular social messaging app in these countries.
“Especially in a time of crisis, unfortunately accuracy is not a person’s primary concern: my study participants consider more valuable the benefits that they and their loved ones would gain in case the rumor is true … than the harm or trouble they could get in in case the rumor turns out to be false,” Pasquetto told the Haitian Times in an email.
As of April 21, Haiti had 57 confirmed cases of coronavirus, a number that is almost certainly an undercount due to lack of testing. But before the country confirmed its first two cases, Zanmi Lasante was working with Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) to identify the best facility for treating coronavirus patients. Zanmi, which operates health care facilities in partnership with MSPP, is the largest non-government health care provider in the country.
University Hospital Mirebalais was considered the most prepared, and Zanmi has since converted a cholera treatment center in the hospital into a COVID-19 treatment unit. But some residents of Mirebalais have adopted the misconception that the organization brought the virus into their community. This increases the chances of health care workers being targeted, Baptiste said.
“They didn’t really understand why the patients were being taken to (University Hospital),” she added.
Some of Zanmi’s 3,500 health workers, largely concentrated in the Central Plateau and Lower Artibonite regions, have worked to educate community members on why patients are being treated at Mirebalais.
But this is only one educational component of their work, which involves raising awareness about coronavirus and educating community members about prevention and what to do if they experience symptoms. Prevention typically involves promoting hand-washing and social distancing.
“There needs to be much more effort at the community level to educate the population on COVID and transmission. So what we’re doing to help ease the tension in the community is to deploy our community health workers, which is kind of the backbone of our work,” Baptiste said.
Zanmi Lasante isn’t the only health care organization deploying community health workers to communities. GHESKIO, which runs a network of health clinics and research centers that handle over 600,000 patient visits each year, is increasing training for its roughly 100 community health workers, working primarily in Port-au-Prince. These Haitian health care workers are conducting active case-finding and education efforts in the capital, dispelling common myths about the virus and teaching preventative efforts like hand-washing, according to Scott Morgan, executive director of the Haitian Global Health Alliance, a sister organization working in support of GHESKIO.
The organization is working to roll out a rapid COVID-19 response plan, and its founder, Dr. Jean William Pape, is co-chairing a multi-sectoral commission for the management of the pandemic, created by President Jovenel Moise.
“It’s very important to have people who are knowledgeable, who are accepted by the community in which they work,” Morgan said about GHESKIO’s community health response.
Both GHESKIO and Zanmi Lasante coordinate their actions with the government. MSPP has made its own effort to educate the population, through radio spots and the dissemination of informational posters and leaflets.
Given the amount of people who listen to the radio, Baptiste said lack of trust in the government, as opposed to the information’s reach, is a more likely reason for public misperceptions about coronavirus.
But Baptiste said that at its root, the problem is lack of education, with less educated people being more likely to downplay the seriousness of coronavirus or perpetuate stigma.
Mirebalais isn’t the only place where misconceptions have had damaging consequences.
In Petionville, a government prosecutor arrested radio personality Luckner Desir earlier this month for allegedly claiming there were no coronavirus cases in Haiti. Desir has denied making the claim. But the arrest caused a stir among his followers, Baptiste said, who set fire to buckets that could have been used for hand-washing.
Baptiste said the journalist had a large following that believes coronavirus does not exist.
Social media and misinformation
Social media adds another layer of complexity, creating the opportunity for false information to spread even faster. An estimated 75% of Haitian adults have smartphones, which offer access to platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp ‒ the latter being particularly popular among youth.
Eaman Jahani, a data scientist for the Shorenstein Center study, said in an email that researchers have not found conclusive evidence linking education to the sharing of misinformation. However, they have found that those with higher education levels encountered both misinformation and mainstream news more often and have less confidence in the truth of misleading stories.
Pasquetto uses the phrase “just in case sharing” to describe the phenomenon of sharing a story one knows might not be true, while perceiving the potential utility to be of greater value than the potential harm. With most Whatsapp users operating under this logic and knowing that others are doing the same, “on messaging apps there is not real expectation for rumors to be necessarily true, which means that also social shaming for sharing false or misleading content is not effective,” she said.
Citing a separate paper she is co-writing, Pasquetto said misinformation has “hidden virality” on social messaging apps: content is hidden within one’s immediate network but can go viral because it is shared by personal connections and thus carries more trustworthiness.
“It’s hard, I understand that during this time everyone is on guard or panicking or stressed, so whatever information they see, they’re perhaps immediately going to share, but it’s important people fact check and stop propagating fear,” said Baptiste, of Zanmi Lasante.
Technology companies and certain nations have taken active efforts to stop the spread of fake news. Facebook, which owns Whatsapp, has announced plans to alert users who have viewed fake coronavirus news and share messages debunking certain claims. The move does not apply to the Whatsapp platform, however.
India, with 400 million users, is the largest market for Whatsapp. A tally by Agence France-Presse earlier this month found that nearly 100 people in the country had been arrested for spreading misinformation about coronavirus. Italy has made its own somewhat controversial efforts to criminalize the spread of fake news.
The Haitian government has not made a formal effort to crack down on false news stories, although fact-checking sites started by private citizens, like T-Check Haiti, do exist.
Demystifying the virus
To slow the spread of unverified information, Pasquetto suggested fact-checkers “should make an effort to highlight and clearly show the dangerous consequences” of sharing such information, instead of simply correcting it.
False information can have life-threatening consequences, and Pasquetto pointed out that people throughout the world have been hospitalized for doing things they thought would ward off the virus.
In Iran, over 60 people have died from drinking industrial-strength alcohol, after hearing the false rumor that it would protect them.
When it comes to education, Zanmi Lasante is hoping entertainers can convince people to take coronavirus seriously. The organization is working with civil society groups to spread educational messaging through Haitian artists. In one example, billboard advertisements featuring the comedian Kako have been designed to contain messages about handwashing, said Baptiste.
Culturally, health care workers see both problems and opportunities for managing the coronavirus pandemic. Baptiste noted the widespread use of naturally occurring tea leaves for treating common colds and flu-like symptoms. Promoting these natural products could help alleviate certain symptoms of coronavirus.
But the influence of traditional and mystic healers has brought many people to link the virus to mysticism. Baptiste emphasized the importance of instructing people to contact public health authorities, especially in rural regions where people tend to seek out a traditional healer for health advice.
Morgan, of Haitian Global Health Alliance, also mentioned that community health workers are educating the public about coronavirus and dispelling common myths.
“I think that is definitely going to be a challenge, to demystify what exactly is coronavirus,” Baptiste said.
Most of all, said Baptiste, efforts to educate the population need to encourage people to show compassion for others.
“People need to understand that the more they resist accepting that COVID is real and here ‒ the bigger the threat is to themselves and (their) communities,” she said.