Borno State witnessed its first case of COVID‑19 on April 19, 2020, and has since experienced a dramatic escalation in the public health crisis. Although it only had 356 cases as of June 8, Borno has also witnessed 26 deaths from the virus, giving it an extremely high fatality rate of 7.3% and making it the third most affected state in Nigeria in terms of fatalities. The situation in Borno is highly precarious and ripe for rapid transmission, with 1.68 million internally displaced persons (IDP) living in camp settings and host communities across the state, where social distancing is not possible.
Similarly, poor nutrition and basic levels of health and sanitation undermine efforts to ensure proper handwashing and other sanitation measures. Finally, weak access to and poor quality of healthcare in Borno mean that the system, already battered by a decade of violent conflict, is incapable of addressing any significant outbreak of COVID‑19. Despite these risks, communities still do not believe that COVID‑19 is either real or deadly, and instead favor widespread rumors, myths, and conspiracy theories about the virus and fail to heed public health guidelines.
According to a listener assessment by a local radio station in May 2020, 96% of its listeners had heard COVID‑19 messaging on its station, but 45% still did not believe that COVID‑19 was ‘real or deadly.’ If communities in Borno State and the broader northeast region of Nigeria are hearing credible sensitization messages, why do they still not believe in their veracity? And what sort of messaging would be more effective? Anecdotal evidence suggests that communities feel that they have no proof of COVID‑19, especially while violence perpetrated by armed opposition groups is still a daily and verifiable reality. Without tangible evidence of the virus, communities fall back on assumptions that the entire crisis has been manufactured by the government to enrich themselves at the expense of local communities. Meanwhile, the Borno State government, as well as international and local non-governmental organization’s (NGO) are primarily responsible for disseminating COVID‑19 sensitization messaging, but are also among the least trusted actors by local communities, thereby compromising the efficacy of risk communications campaigns.
Widespread belief in rumors and conspiracy theories has filled this gap in information from more credible actors. Communities are especially susceptible to misinformation because 64% of Nigerians inherently trust social media, with a particular reliance on WhatsApp, where audio messages can overcome barriers of illiteracy. Communities cite myths including that 5G networks can cause COVID‑19; that the government is dropping chemicals from a jet to spread the virus; that the virus can be cured by lemon, ginger, or garlic; and that the Nigerian immune system is too strong to succumb to the virus; among many others. These rumors continue to provoke suspicion of the government, incite intercommunal conflict and stigmatization, and undermine vital attempts to protect vulnerable communities from COVID‑19. Unless questions about the pitfalls and opportunities for risk communications campaigns are answered, efforts to stymie the spread of the virus will remain ineffective, investments will be wasted, and fragile local relationships will be further undermined.
The GASKIYA project (Hausa for ‘Truth’): Addressing COVID‑19 Myths through Technology, was a Mercy Corps pilot initiative to improve community-level behavioral change related to COVID‑19 prevention measures through strategic risk communications in Borno State of Nigeria. The Gaskiya project incorporated push SMS and IVR messages to intake rumor submissions from truth champions, translate and transcribe the rumors, tag and categorize them in, and send feedback to the community in partnership with Translators without Borders and Viamo. The project was broken into three parts:
COVID‑19 Messaging Assessment – To kick off the project, we conducted a community-driven assessment of community access to COVID‑19 information, attitudes towards messaging content, messengers, and modalities for both factual and false information, and recommendations for improved campaigns. The results of the assessment in turn informed the design of subsequent myth tracking and messaging campaigns, and were shared with the Borno State Task Force on COVID‑19, media outlets, and the wider humanitarian community operating in northeast Nigeria.
Myth Tracker Tool – In order to ensure that messaging continues to adapt and respond to new myths, the team continuously monitored how misinformation is spreading across Borno. We worked with Viamo to collect rumors through IVR, and send feedback related to those rumors, and Translators without Borders to support in the translation and qualitative analysis of the rumors to help identify the risk and impact of those rumors.
Participatory Analysis and Reports – In addition to the digital dashboard, the team worked with Translators without Borders to produce an analysis report to synthesize information for stakeholders, as well as local communities themselves. The analytical process behind these reports will also serve as a critical community feedback loop to engage local structures in participatory analysis of trends emerging from the myth tracker tool, for more in-depth deliberation and proposal of recommendations for ongoing risk communications. The process was intended to also bolster community understanding of the dangers associated with COVID‑19 rumors and myths, which can also fuel community-based sensitization initiatives being implemented under other Mercy Corps Nigeria programs.
The project launched in August 2020, with 85 volunteer “Truth Champions” across six local government areas in Borno state reported rumors about COVID‑19 over several weeks in November and December 2020. Throughout the project period, the Truth Champions initiated a total of 810 calls and completed a total of 574 recordings.