Africa goes to war on COVID misinformation – with song

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, gives an interview at his home, on Aug. 13, 2019, in Magere Village outside Kampala, Uganda. Mr. Wine is a politician, businessman, philanthropist, musician, and actor.
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How do you fight misinformation?

Maybe with music.

Why We Wrote This

A new UNESCO initiative channels artists’ creativity to combat the flood of rumors around COVID-19. Take this seriously, the songs say – but also, remember we’re in this together.

#DontGoViral, an initiative led by UNESCO and i4Policy, enlists artists across Africa to combat the so-called infodemic: the flood of unfounded rumors about coronavirus that has accompanied the pandemic. 

Ugandan political and musical star Bobi Wine helped kick off the effort with “Corona Virus Alarm,” which quickly became a hit. Artists’ submissions should comply with World Health Organization guidelines on public health, such as emphasizing social distancing and hand-washing. And all art must be openly licensed, meaning anyone can use, remix, or translate it, helping public health messages spread beyond boundaries like language and culture.

It’s a useful tool for places where there’s less COVID-19 information available in local languages. But it also highlights art’s unique power to educate and unite – and artists’ power for good. 

“I hope #DontGoViral can give artists a new awareness of their societal importance,” says Islam Elbeiti, a radio DJ, jazz bassist, and activist who works with i4Policy.

As concern about the coronavirus spreads, falsehoods pass from person to person, too. A Nigerian newspaper told men to keep safe by shaving their beards, while black tea has been touted as a cure in Kenya. Across Europe, arsonists torched dozens of cellphone towers, after conspiracy theories linked 5G technology to the pandemic. In India, rumors spread that cheering for health workers had caused sound waves that weakened the virus.

It’s an “infodemic” that public health experts warn could compound the medical crisis, as social media and gossip spread unfounded tips and rumors. And late last month, one of the most famous men in Uganda decided to do something about it. 

He wrote a song.

Why We Wrote This

A new UNESCO initiative channels artists’ creativity to combat the flood of rumors around COVID-19. Take this seriously, the songs say – but also, remember we’re in this together.

Popstar-turned-political-opposition-leader Bobi Wine swapped his trademark red beret for a colorful cap, and dispensed some practical advice in a catchy Afrobeat melody

“The bad news is that everyone is a potential victim, but the good news is that everyone is a potential solution,” sings Mr. Wine, teaming up with fellow musician Nubian Li. “Sensitize the masses to sanitize, keep a social distance and quarantine.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The song became a sensation. Days after releasing his explosive hit, Mr. Wine announced that anyone was welcome to cover it, launching the #DontGoViral campaign. 

Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Innovation for Policy Foundation (i4Policy), #DontGoViral mobilizes African artists to combat misinformation with creativity.  

Musicians, dancers, and visual artists can share public health messages that comply with World Health Organization guidelines, uploading submissions to an online forum and sharing them with the hashtag. All art must be openly licensed, meaning anyone can use, remix, or translate it – and that its messages can jump over boundaries like language and culture. “Corona Virus Alert,” Mr. Wine’s rallying cry, has already been covered in Acholi, which is spoken in northern Uganda, and by Kampala children, joined by young actress Nattembo Racheal Monicah.

“In situations like this one we have to use every tool at our disposal, and music is one of them,” says Mr. Wine. 

It can be an effective one, says Carlos Chirinos, a New York University professor who studies music’s role in public health and collaborated with West African musicians to produce “Africa Stop Ebola” in 2014. In times of crisis, songs are easy to repeat and remember, help defuse panic, and “pack health information into three minutes.”

Many voices, one message

While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is relatively low on the continent, experts fear that skeletal health systems could soon be overwhelmed.

“The first step to fighting the pandemic is fighting the infodemic, by providing the right information to communities,” says Eva Sow Ebion, a co-founder and director of community at i4Policy. 

But most educational materials are in languages primarily spoken in North American and Europe, according to Sasha Rubel, who leads UNESCO’s collaboration on the project. “Our hope is to create a massive movement to push artists to create openly licensed content that is accessible and locally adapted, in terms of both format and language, to marginalized and rural communities in Africa most at risk,” she says. 

Already, more than 400 artists from 36 African countries have participated, according to i4Policy. #DontGoViral submissions are promoted on the campaign’s website, as well as on YouTube and social media. Songs are also played on local radio stations and via the BBC World Service, in a joint advocacy initiative.

Nigerien composer Omar Adam Goumour, frontman of the band Ezza, croons about the coronavirus in Tamashek, which is spoken across parts of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. “Corona exists. It is a reality and not a lie,” he intones, joined by other local singers. “Whatever you touch, wash your hands with soap.” 

In another video, dancers from Compagnie Tcheza in Comoros demonstrate the importance of social distancing by spinning away from each other in a series of impressive flips and high-energy turns. 

Jon Stever, co-founder and CEO of i4Policy, hopes the campaign creates a dialogue that transcends borders. “It is not just about telling people to wash their hands; it’s about engaging people in a discourse so they can understand why hand-washing is important [and] become agents of response and recovery,” he says.

Artists “help us to touch the soul of our interconnectedness” and mobilize us for the common good, he adds. 

Many performers focus on harmony and compassion in their #DontGoViral submissions. “Don’t you worry, don’t you be scared,” members of Kenya’s Mukuru Youth Initiative sing in Swahili. “Together we shall fight. We shall overcome.” 

“This song should be playing back to back on all the radio stations,” a comment on the video reads. 

Listeners aren’t the only ones learning from #DontGoViral. “I hope #DontGoViral can give artists a new awareness of their societal importance,” says Islam Elbeiti, a radio DJ, jazz bassist, and activist who works with i4Policy. 

Team effort

Contradictory and confusing perspectives on COVID-19 aren’t just coming from chain emails and Facebook feeds. World leaders have also spouted unscientific claims. Soldiers in Madagascar went door to door last week distributing an untested herbal cure promoted by President Andry Rajoelina. U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested that people could be treated with disinfectant injections and ultraviolet light.  

In mid-April, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced an initiative to counter misinformation, calling it “a poison that is putting even more lives at risk.”

“Together, let’s reject the lies and nonsense out there,” he said.

That message seems to be catching on. African megastars, including Grammy Award winner Youssou N’Dour and Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, have also joined the #DontGoViral campaign. Mr. Wine’s original video now has more than 1 million views on YouTube. 

“This motivates me to know that whatever little I do is not in vain,” Mr. Wine says. “It adds on to other people’s efforts to fight against the pandemic.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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