The spread of COVID-19 has been relatively lower in Africa. Factors including age distribution and rurality have been proposed to contribute to this. Nigeria, the most populous African nation is predicted to have the most infections in the continent. Since the country’s index case, dynamics such as population density, urbanisation, poverty, and existing comorbidities have been linked to the spread and/or containment of the infection.
Together with the aforementioned, social media has played a critical role in the pandemic in Nigeria. Nigeria has over 123 million internet users, the highest in the continent. Like other developing countries, it has seen a progressive rise in social media use. Rapid digitalization and other factors including cheap data plans like WhatsApp plans which cost less than $1 monthly, have given more Nigerians access to social media. While youths are frequently seen as avid users of social media, there is evidence suggesting some older Nigerians are heavy users of social media. The influence of social media in Nigeria has been discussed in the past as it relates to politics and even past pandemics (here and here). This article discusses the influence of social media in the Nigerian COVID-19 pandemic across three broad themes.
Firstly, social media as a powerful tool for sensitization and knowledge dissemination. This is a double-edged sword as both credible and harmful information is shared. This is important because information distributed on social media spreads rapidly and broadly. Utilizing multiple platforms, the Nigerian global health community played an active role in controlling the discourse. Citizens were informed about symptoms, testing, best practises, and false information. New updates were shared in real time, which was valuable given the novel nature of the virus. A key strength of social media is that it reaches citizens remotely, and they can ask questions and receive answers quickly. It utilized creative and collaborative communication through media like infographics, music and live videos. For example, a renowned filmmaker created a cartoon campaign in multiple local languages, to ensure children and Nigerians who did not speak English were well informed. Future research is needed to measure the true impact of social media sensitization in Nigeria’s Covid-19 response and beyond.
On the flip side, social media was a major source of harmful information. There were viral messages recommending unverified medication for treating and preventing Covid-19, and declaring the virus cannot affect dark Africans. Furthermore, conspiracy theories thrived. An influential religious leader for example, linked Covid-19 with the deployment of 5G technology. These demonstrate that priority must be given to controlling the social media narrative.
Secondly, social media created a channel for citizen participation which has played a key role in advocacy and shaping policy. For example, early in the outbreak health workers complained about lack of access to testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), and meagre hazard allowances. The lockdown made physical advocacy impossible. To support the formal requests made by medical unions, health workers and other compatriots took to social media advocating better conditions. This proved successful as the government approved an increase in hazard allowances. Social media was effective for this because many public office holders have active social media profiles.
Thirdly and related to the aforesaid, social media has served as a tool for public accountability. For instance, during the burial of a top government aide who died from COVID-19, an attendee was filmed wrongly disposing of his PPE. The video went viral and in minutes Nigerians on social media condemned the act and demanded action. Shortly after, a team was sent to properly dispose the gears and sanitize the area. Additionally, pictures surfaced from a party organised by an A-list actress during the lockdown. Nigerians through social media reacted to the breach of protocol, leading to disciplinary action. Other examples include Nigerians through social media successfully advocating for the NCDC to report number of tests performed. Although every advocacy action didn’t yield the desired impact, the potential of social media as a tool for advocacy and social participation is solid.
Although this article highlights three areas, social media’s influence is seen in a myriad of other ways. For instance, social distancing a key containment strategy in the absence of a vaccine impacts the human need to connect, leading to loneliness and mental stress. Online interaction through social media is a key coping strategy particularly for the elderly who need to take extra precautions. Considering social media in the design of solutions and policies to control the spread and severity of COVID-19 and other diseases in Nigeria moving forward is critical, as it has proven to be an interactive and cost-effective channel. It should however be noted that while social media users in the country may not be representative of the population, social media use is anticipated to continue growing and should be leveraged.
About the author:
Ella Togun is a Global Health and Development professional working to strengthen health and educational systems in resource constrained settings. She has proven experience garnered across public, private, non-profit and research institutions in Africa and Europe, where she has worked in programs, training, policy, advocacy and research (@ellatogun).
Acknowledgement: this blog responds to a call by BMJ Global Health, in conjunction with the Emerging Voices for Global Health on COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Competing interest: The author declares no competing interests.