Kenyan doctor dispelling COVID-19 myths through journalism

By Verenardo Meeme

September 8, 2020

With social media awash in myths about COVID-19, Dr. Mercy Korir, a medical doctor turned journalist, is doing her best to combat the propaganda that is accompanying the pandemic’s spread across East Africa.

Korir, who holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery, saw a gap in African news coverage about health issues in general, and COVID-19 in particular, and sought to fill it with straightforward, fact-based health reporting.

She developed an interest in writing that led her to pursue a master’s degree in communication studies at the University of Nairobi. With very few, if any, medically trained journalists working in the Kenyan media, and a general perception that science-based health reporting is hard to grasp and complicated, Korir began honing her writing skills. She would eventually leave her practice as a medical doctor to become a full-time health journalist at Kenya’s KTN News.

Korir’s medical background has given her a clear picture of what ails the country’s health system.

“African health systems are still weak and information sharing is one part that plays a role towards rectifying this,” she told the Alliance for Science.

As the lead editor of health and science for the Kenyan media conglomerate Standard Group Plc, Korir established a health desk dedicated to gathering and disseminating science news in the East Africa region.

“We are seeing attention and placement of science-based news in front pages as well as being discussed via radio, which was not previously the case. Media houses are now establishing science desks with a focus on science reporting,” she said.

Her health reporting and advocacy caught the attention of Harvard University earlier this summer and resulted in an invitation to virtually address a public session at the prestigious institution.

Korir has encountered first-hand some of the persistent myths about COVID-19 in her reporting. A common one is that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment against COVID-19. This argument spread across social media despite some misleading claims about the drug’s success.

“As a medic, it was my responsibility to come out and explain where the current research about the said cure stands and to point out that it is not right to generalize. We can only report such cases based on scientific consensus, not a one-sided approach. We wanted to dispel some of the misperceptions and give people the right information so that they can make informed decisions,” she said.

Another myth Korir frequently encounters is Kenyans’ belief in Covid-Organics (CVO), an organic herbal concoction promoted by the government of Madagascar. The tonic, which has not been proven to work, has nonetheless been popular in many African countries. Korir said that the fact that no cure or vaccine for COVID-19 currently exists leads people, even those with advanced educations, to seek out unverified information and unproven treatments.

According to Kenya’s Agriculture Fisheries and Food Authority (AFA), some Kenyans have also embraced home remedies such as lemons, garlic, ginger and mint — none of which offer any protection against COVID-19 — although they may relieve people of some flu-like symptoms because of their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.

Dr. Wilson Winstons Muhwezi, an associate professor of behavioral sciences and mental health at Makerere University, agreed with Korir that COVID myths have spread widely throughout East African communities.

“Myths are an attempt to look for a logical explanation. They are human ways of trying to explain a challenge,” he said during an Alliance for Science webinar last month.

He noted that in Uganda, one myth being spread is that because Africans have dark skin, they can only get a mild form of COVID-19 infection. Another posits that the virus cannot be transmitted in hot weather, while another suggests that spraying alcohol and chlorine all over the body can help prevent against getting the virus. Others have even turned to extreme methods like using cow dung and urine as a supposed cure or a belief that rebuking the devil through spiritual anointing will prevent COVID-19.

Korir compared some of the COVID myths to the early misunderstanding that surrounded the HIV/AIDS challenge.

“When HIV spread in Kenya — I was in medical school at the time — we were not sure about mother-to-child transmission,” she said. “But now there is a lot of data and case studies, so we now know that is one of the key transmission points and we put a lot of effort into preventing that spread.”

Similarly, Korir said, the more that is learned about coronavirus transmission, the more that can be done to react accordingly and slow the spread.

In the meantime, Korir vowed to continue combatting myths and misinformation — both in Kenya and beyond.