'I only wear masks because of police': Why Covid-19 denialism is still a problem in Kenya
“There is nothing the government or anyone can do to make me believe that Covid-19 is real and that I can actually get this disease,” Michael Omondi, a youth leader in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum, tells Nation.Africa.
His words come 15 months after Kenya confirmed its first Covid-19 case, and after more than 3,000 deaths from the viral disease. Additionally, data from the Ministry of Health shows that 172,639 cases have been confirmed so far, yet still, there are those who do not believe that Covid-19 really exists.
The reasons for their disbelief vary. Some cite the reckless political rallies by held by leaders last year to early this year. If Covid-19 was real, no politician would have mingled with the masses, they reckon.
Additionally, when viewed from the context of grand corruption and the recent Covid millionaires scandal, many see the hefty loans granted to the country to fight the disease as an excuse for some to 'eat', and has brewed even more doubts.
A good number of Covid deniers also say they are yet to see an infected person since the pandemic began.
Many people interviewed by Nation.Africa also cited the fact that schools reopened despite insufficient resources to enable social distancing, and say that the government did not distribute face masks and sanitisers to casual workers cleaning the streets under the Kazi Mtaani initiative started to offer jobs to the youth in the wake of the pandemic.
Kazi Mtaani, a Swahili phrase loosely translated to mean “jobs in the neighbourhood”, was a government project that began shortly after the pandemic arrived in Kenya, which recruited jobless youth to work for communities. They performed menial tasks such as unblocking trenches and garbage collection and were being paid weekly. A few months into the project, the payments stopped. Aid distributed by NGOs in slums, and the government's weekly Sh1,000 pay also stopped.
If the pandemic is real, Mr Omondi believes, disbursement of the funds would not have stopped.
Though the government has conducted countless campaigns to enlighten the masses on the dangers of Covid-19, it seems the messaging is yet to sink in for a number of Kenyans.
“I never wear my mask, I only do so when I see the police because they will extort money from me. I have never seen anyone infected with the virus,” Kennedy Angutha, an elder in Sisal A area in Lunga Lunga, Nairobi, said.
Misinformation regarding the pandemic has proven to be a headache. Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, while speaking on May 26 at a virtual meeting organised by Unesco on Communicating Covid-19 and Non-Communicable Diseases in the Infodemic era, said misinformation was threatening to erode progress made in the health sector.
“Lies and half-truths have instilled a sense of fear among the public against visiting hospitals, and this has presented a challenge in monitoring and managing Covid-19 and other non-communicable diseases,” he noted.
One of the most recent examples of misinformation was a story published by the lifesitenews.com, a Canadian anti-abortion advocacy and news publication. A story titled – Noble Prize winner: Mass Covid Vaccination an “Unacceptable Mistake” on May 19, 2021, written by Celeste McGovern. It regurgitated words that were allegedly spoken by famous virologist, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner Luc Montagnier, who said mass vaccination against coronavirus during the pandemic was “unthinkable and a historical blunder that is creating the variants and leading to deaths from the disease”.
Whereas the news site has defended itself by saying that it merely reported what the virologist said, the damage is already done. This misleading story was published barely two weeks after the news site had been removed from Facebook for publishing misleading Covid-19 information.
Several Kenyans accessed the story via WhatsApp and would use the words of Montagnier to cast doubt on the ongoing vaccination process.
“If that serious scientist can say that the vaccine is bad and it is just a creation to cause deaths, I am sure you understand that there is nothing like Covid,” said Mr Angutha.
A study done last year seeking to understand the mistrust and general disbelief of Africans, Kenyans included, of Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation, Unicef and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) stated that if misinformation is left unaddressed, people will disregard health measures and thwart the fight against Covid-19.