The Fight Against COVID-19: Misinformation And Unfounded Beliefs (PART 1) 

This article is in two parts. This (part one) discusses the measures put in place to contain and manage the COVID-19 in the country and how misinformation may adversely affect the fight.  The concept of misinformation, how it is sustained and accepted even in the face of facts are also discussed.

The second part takes a look at how ignorance, beliefs/superstition and falsehood/fabrication may negatively affect the efforts to contain and manage the COOVID-19. Other issues discussed are the way forward around these challenges.

A third world ‘war’?

The raging COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to by some historians, analysts and commentators as the third world war. This assertion has been premised on the fact that the COVID-19 disease has affected more countries (currently 184) than in the two world wars put together (less than 50). In addition, if the trend (infection rates, fatalities, socio-economic impact, etc.,) continues for the next couple of months,  the  adverse effects on individuals, private businesses, corporate institutions, and countries across the globe would not only be dire but might surpass that of the cumulative effects of the First and Second World Wars.

Unlike the two previous wars which were fought among identifiable countries, this time round, the enemy is not another human being, a nation, a continent, allies nor does the war involve the use of sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, to brutalize, maim and kill others; rather the enemy is a microorganism (a particle which cannot be seen by the human eye without the aid of advanced electron microscope) referred to by microbiologists as a virus. This virus has since January this year been invading continent to continent, country to country and community to community via humans. It has weaponized the human being and attacked people regardless of race, power, wealth or vulnerability.

Different modus operandi

In the case of COVID-19, as against the use of sophisticated weapons of mass destruction during the two World Wars, no one can run into a bunker, use a patriot missile, anti-grenade or anti-aircrafts for protection. Our self-defense lies with relevant information and proper attitude. Fortunately, the health professionals have provided the general public with the relevant information known about the virus and have in addition directed the public on what to do or refrain from, in order to avoid infection. Furthermore, communication aimed at throwing more light on the major issues surrounding COVID-19 in order to enhance better understanding of, and compliance with, the protocols recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Ministry of Health (MoH) are on-going. Alongside the above, is the dissemination of useful information to facilitate behavioural and attitudinal change to enable the population adjust to the new condition of life brought about by COVID-19.

Support systems

Psychologists have also been providing counselling and other psychological services to those under quarantine as well as those who have been tested positive for COVID-19, their families, friends and co-workers. In addition, through radio, television, newspapers, and social media, efforts are being made to enhance education and sensitization to help reduce fear and anxiety. The migration service and other security services are very alert at different points of entry into the country to ensure that the President’s directives to close our borders are duly enforced.

The Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in anticipation of the potential economic challenges COVID-19 is likely to have on individuals, employers and the country, has come out with plans (including tax exemptions for employers) to mitigate some of the expected side effects. The Bank of Ghana has also reduced the lending rate which has in turn reflected at the commercial Banks. The MoH continues to provide the necessary kits and personal protective equipment (PPEs) for medical staff and the frontline security personnel to protect them and facilitate their work. In addition, life insurance has been procured by the same Ministry for some frontline medical staff as further recognition of, and support for, their sacrifices. Tax exemption has been granted to all medical staff for three months, effective April, while frontline staff of the same profession have been given 50% increase on their basic salary for three months.

The challenges

With these measures and several others in place (and I guess more will be forthcoming), the country seems to be on track to effectively manage and contain the pandemic in such a way that it will not get to the point where our medical personnel, facilities and other required resources will be overwhelmed and lead to more fatalities. Regrettably, certain unfortunate developments which have come up over the past couple of weeks have the potential to adversely affect our collective efforts and must therefore be checked in order not to derail the gains made in the fight against the pandemic. On the surface and under normal circumstances, these issues (discussed below) are minor and peripheral part of everyday mundane life (if not fun and comic relief) hence they should not attract any serious attention but in our present situation, they are, and have become critical and therefore deserve urgent consideration.  

As indicated earlier, peripheral issues are mostly very minor or insignificant and therefore of no or very little importance and consequence. Ironically however, in this context and in our current situation, the issues seem to have gained more weight and have become part of everyday conversation with the potential to impact negatively our combat against COVID-19; hence, from the perspective of psychology, they must be tackled head on. For the purpose of this discussion, the issues are categorized into misinformation/rumours/fake news, ignorance/beliefs/ superstitions and outright fabrication/lies/mischief.

Misinformation, rumours and fake news                                                                     

Among others, misinformation simply connotes fabrication, deception, misrepresentation, distortion and propaganda. In essence, misinformation is mostly carried out deliberately by individual(s), group(s) or institutions with the aim of achieving varied personal, group, institutional or other sectional goals including deception. It must be emphasized however that there are others who engage in misinformation as a result of ignorance and/or just for the fun of it.  In effect, such persons may not necessarily have any ulterior motives for the action beyond the fun and may also not even be aware of, or anticipate the potential adverse effects such misinformation may have on others and the larger society.

Misinformation is not the preserve of any group of persons as it transcends age brackets, sex/gender, educational background, socio-economic background, geographical location and race. Misinformation may also be carried out by officialdom in a well-organized format aimed at rallying support for or against a proposal, existing policy/program, as a means of indoctrinating or ‘protecting’ others, inducing fear or diverting attention from the real or factual issues. An individual or a group may also engage in misinformation for the same or similar reasons as that of officialdom.

Why is ‘obvious’ misinformation believed?

One of the major reasons why misinformation, rumours or fake news is easily believed is that a significant percentage of our society strongly believe in, and largely depend on anecdotal evidence - hearsay, subjective, circumstantial, or sketchy information  (as we say in our local parlance, akee, akee, yese, yese, jeetah, jeetah, wobena, wobena, etc.,). Therefore, for this group of persons, almost anything they hear and/or read/view is ‘true’, ‘reliable’ and appropriate for consumption. They most often embrace the information and add it to their stored knowledge which in turn influences their thoughts and subjective actions. In Ghana (and experiences in other African countries show similar trend), anecdotal evidence seems to be somewhat engrained in our socialization processes, culture and belief systems and indeed, as part of our everyday life hence such pieces of information are not difficulty for us to accept, imbibe and retain. 

As a matter of fact, in a predominantly anecdotal society, individuals who are inquisitorial and have the habit of asking the W questions (who, when, which, where, what etc.) are usually tagged as being all knowing/too known and even arrogant hence with time most of them also come to terms with, and accept the prevailing norm/status quo.  After all, it is the order of the day. Put different, a child growing up in such an environment/society is likely to accept anecdotal evidence as the main or one of the dominant and very reliable source of information hence it is likely to become part of the his/her stored knowledge and an acceptable means of information gathering and acquisition. Another reason is that misinformation/rumors/fake news tends to be fun, interesting and very easy to relate to because they are purposeful spiced and flavored/seasoned to taste good for ready and easy consumption by the general public especially the gullible and those who do not want to subject issues to strict proof and analysis.


Furthermore, misinformation tends to be trusted more than the real facts because the former is usually repeated several times over a short period of time and that tends to give it credibility/credence. The question that comes up is ‘if it is not true why is it all over and on the lips of a lot of people?’ This is one of the common strategies used in propaganda and to some extent in advertising. Think of any radio or television advertisement or a song which you used to or currently sing along almost perfectly any time it is played though you did not make any conscious effort(s) to learn the words. This is an aspect of a principle referred to as sub-liminal absorption/engagement/assimilation or sub-conscious learning - picking/adapting information without the usual conscious attention or efforts. Repetition enhances encoding and storage of information. The principle is the same in misinformation, rumours and fake news.

Repetition and trust in the media

Taking cognizance of the important association between repetition, retention and recall, lower primary teachers in particular make very good use of the concept to enhance teaching and learning at the lower primary level in particular. At that level, they place more emphasis on the concept of repetition by ensuring that pupils regularly go over most of the things taught because they are very much aware of the critical links between repetition, retention and recall of information. Besides the fun, repetition is one of the reasons why many of us still recall with ease and sing most of our kindergarten and primary one and two songs and rhymes. Another reason why misinformation has popular appeal in Ghana in particular is that many Ghanaians believe and trust almost everything reported by the media (radio and television stations in particular) and in recent times most of what are posted on social media platforms.

This position is supported by studies by the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) and other institutions which have over the years found high public trust in the media. Indeed, NO CREDIBLE traditional media house will deliberately peddle misinformation as part of its everyday news items, reports, commentaries and program. However, media houses do support/substantiate their news/reports with interviews and other pieces of information which under the context of this discussion may fall under misinformation.  In doing so, the intention is not to endorse misinformation but it becomes an unintended consequences which inadvertently create the impression that since they (media houses) have been reported by the media, they are factual and reliable.

Formal education

The level of adult illiteracy (about 21% as at 2019 - for the population who are 15 years and above) in the country also makes it very easy for a cross section of the citizens to easily believe in misinformation, rumours and sometimes blatant lies and fabrications. This is not to imply that very little or no formal education necessarily makes an individual gullible, illogical or unreasonable. No, not at all! The import here is that the worldview, attitudes, perception, beliefs and the attributional disposition of these groups tend to be shaped somewhat differently from that of those with at least fifteen years of formal education hence the former tend to be more susceptible to misinformation. The sad issue is that although invariably misinformation/ rumors/fake news tend to go contrary to known facts and figures, which are mostly verifiable, because the misinformation is usually in line with the predominant structures of thinking and belief systems (traditional and/or religious and superstition) of the individual, it reinforces that thought pattern. Therefore, the misinformation does not meet any strong resistance from the already stored knowledge - the architecture of the new information is not alien to the system so it is readily welcome and absorbed.