How to tackle false messaging during a health crisis – advice from disability advocates

Written by Jacob Ireri, Deaf Empowerment Society of Kenya

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the COVID-19 context in which myths about started to emerge within the disability community.

Kenya reported its first COVID-19 case on 12 March 2020, with an exponential rise since. In response, the government enforced preventive measures: social distancing, hygiene rules, movements limitations and night curfew.

The pandemic exposed the inadequate inclusion of people with disabilities in the planning and implementation of prevention and control strategies. Key gaps include the lack of accessible and reliable information and its poor dissemination through channels used by people with disabilities. This had a direct negative impact on their adhesion to and respect of public health measures.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

Despite the government urging the public to follow the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on COVID-19, there is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 circulating.

Advocates discovered that deaf people are also receiving incorrect information through videos and social media.

The most common myths include:

  • Africa has a lot of sunshine so coronavirus won’t affect Africans
  • taking alcohol can protect oneself
  • there is a cure for coronavirus.

Myths like these, coupled with the inequality of access to official public health messaging by deaf persons, was particularly worrying.

Other challenges faced by the disability community have been ensuring that deaf persons’ needs are prioritised within the COVID-19 response and that sign language interpreters were adequately deployed to communicate official messages.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

Recognising that misinformation can cost lives, deaf advocates from several organisations came together to support the design and dissemination of correct information about COVID-19 in Kenya sign language.

We and other advocates worked with international disability and development organisation Light for the World to produce a MythBusters video to address the false information that was spreading about COVID-19 throughout the disability community.

I advised on which were the main myths spreading within the deaf community and how to make the video accessible, e.g. easy to understand and few messages, make it visual to support its accessibility, and using an interpreter who is deaf himself.

All of the organisations who contributed to the production of the video agreed that our own logos should not be included – what mattered was the message and content and we did not want this to become confused by publicity.

Being integrated in the deaf community allows me to reach a large number of persons, including other advocates, so I helped with the dissemination of the video. It was mainly shared through WhatsApp groups of communities of deaf and hard of hearing. As a known advocate, the content I share is seen as reliable and trustworthy.

This allows for a snowballing effect; in particular through WhatsApp groups, such as one composed of grantees working on disability facilitated by AmplifyChange or in DESK’s group, which includes Honorable Isaac Mwaura, Kenya’s nominated senator for persons with disabilities.

I also organised a Q&A on the video and myths to potentially dispel others and to convince people who still had doubts.

Consequently, false facts and unfounded remedies are disputed, reducing the risk of confusion for and misleading of the deaf community.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

  • With inadequate access to health-related information and services, people with disabilities – and marginalised populations more generally – are likely to unknowingly put themselves and others at risk. These inequalities are particularly exposed during a health crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Being a self-led organisation – in our case disabled led – gives a comparative advantage to identify what is being shared in communities, and to provide adequate recommendations on what the best formats, contents and dissemination channels. In our case, an internationally recognised expert on disability turned to DESK for advice.
  • As time was of the essence, we wanted to develop everything quickly, from building partnerships to content design and broadcasting, and if we were to do it again we would spend more time thinking about the packaging of the message to support the video link, to let recipients know it was validated information

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Become an ‘expert’: As an advocate, governmental bodies, organisations and communities are likely to turn to you for information and you have a key role to play in dispelling myths in your own way/language. You need to learn from trustworthy sources such as the WHO all the basic information (virus name, origin, transmission, prevention measures, etc.).
  • Be proactive to complement government interventions, in particular by using your expertise and insertion in communities to ensure that they quickly have access to adequate and accessible information (whether it is for persons with disabilities or other marginalised groups).
  • Use your position: Use your insertion and leadership in communities to disseminate official information – it often is an effective means to ensure that people know it is reliable and validated
  • Think about the ‘packaging’ and message supporting material shared – even if it’s hard to do when facing a health crisis where time is of essence, it is worthwhile as it lets recipients know the information is official and trustworthy

Jacob Ireri, Deaf Empowerment Society of Kenya

Jacob Ireri is a young deaf advocate from Kenya. He has 10 years of experience in disability, sexual and reproductive health and rights and Disease Control and Prevention. He started his career with USAID where he was instrumental in mainstreaming disability inclusion. In 2013, he co-founded Deaf Empowerment Society of Kenya (DESK) to raise voices of the often unheard. DESK was recognised as an innovation by Aid and Development (2018) and Jacob was a semi-finalist for Grinnelfor Social Justice (2019).