By Dr Olunifesi Suraj
Once again, I will like to start my presentation with quotes attributed to J.F Kennedy that:
“If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system”.
As the thin line between truth and falsehood gradually fades away, we are confronted than ever before with the reality of what is truth? Who determines the truth? How do we define truth? To whom do we give the power to define truth and falsity? Which opinions are legitimate? Which type of speech should be allowed and who should be the gate keeper of such speech? Also, is the question of whom do we entrust the truth with? Where do we search for truth and from where do we gather the truth?
You will all agree with me that the answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they used to be. The truth of the matter is that truth has become a very scarce commodity! With everybody claiming to know something they don’t actually know, speaking authoritatively on issues where in actual fact they are grossly novice and undermining the minority voice who actually did know, one can only wish humanity the advent of a post-truth era! An era where lies, disinformation and misinformation are now the new currencies! As F.C Foskett rightly put it, “knowledge is what I know, information is what everybody knows”.
In today’s information economy, information is never neutral so also are the media through which it is propagated. Hence, we must come to accept the fact that information is not knowledge and that an informed citizen might not necessarily be a knowledgeable citizen. More so, a literate citizen does not automatically transform into an educated citizen. Knowledge must guide information. Knowledge is light and as the sages say, forever it will be the light to guide humanity. We ought to share knowledge and not information.
Therefore, the obvious way to combat infodemic in the era of Covid 19 pandemic is through knowledge. If we could get “educated people” and not mere “literate or informed people” to share their knowledge rather than what they are informed, we would have been able to tame the infodemic monster efficiently and substantially tackle the pandemic effectively. This calls again for the educated citizen. It calls for knowledgeable citizen as against informed citizens. Re-echoing the world of J.F Kennedy, “…but the educated citizens know how much more there is to know. He knows that knowledge is power – more so today than ever before.”
Now the question is what are we supposed to know that we are yet to know? For the present Covid-19, no one seems to know the cause. I guess this is the beginning of our problem, the infodemic and the pandemic. How does the world intend to tame the pandemic they cannot ascertain its real cause despite its origin? In the absence of truth, conspiracy theories and fake news are bound to take the central stage. Until they are proven wrong, do we have the right to dismissed them? Will it not be better to activate the “market place of ideas” in the race for the truth rather than denouncing alternatives narratives as fake news when they are yet to be proven as such?
Furthermore, the predictive contagious data presented so far which has caused worldwide fears and panic on the pandemic appears suspicious. This is another pandemic on its own! So also, the misinformed data of infected persons as demonstrated by the defective Chinese-made RT-PCR testing kits as reported in India and other affected countries. In actual fact, relying too much on data provided by China is the greatest undoing as far as Covid-19 pandemic is concerned. Critics of the World Health Organization (WHO) have accused the organization of failing to “adequately obtain, vet and share information in a timely and transparent fashion” in an overwhelming evidence that China silenced whistleblowers and undercounted cases (The Washing Post, April 16, 2020) and even banned academic publications on the causes of the disease unless they are verified by Chinese authority. Shouldn’t WHO have been guarded by China’s attempt to conceal SARS outbreak case in 2002 and by Taiwan’s early warning in late December, 2019 that it was seeing evidence of human to human transmission as against Beijing claims? Yet, the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus have been quoted to have allegedly said “I am left in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency”. Is WHO not culpable of misinformation by lending credibility to China in the now ravaging covid-19 pandemic when it could have expressed more skepticism? Is China also not guilty of disinformation for misleading the world by their failure to provide reliable data on the covid-19 until it became pandemic? By uncritically citing Chinese data, it appears WHO officials lent credibility to information that was false and this has been deemed “concerning” by discerning minds. This has questioned the reality of the available information by WHO and the totalitarian measures put forward by Beijing.
Will it be appropriate then to blame country such as Sweden for taken a parallel opposite position to that of China in regards to the pandemic and have refused to lockdown and close their economy? Can we also blame President Trump for discontinuing the predictive contagious data of WHO and opting for more reliable situational data as incidents of the infection unfold? Can we equally blame the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro who has repeatedly called Covid-19 “a little flu” and has criticized governments who gave in to the panic and fear based on unrealistic predictive contagious data? Will it also be right to condemn those credible scientists like Prof. Luc Montagnier, a French Nobel Prize Winner and co-discoverer of HIV who alleged that the virus might have been manufactured in the laboratory since they found insertion points of three different separate diseases (malaria gem, HIV and SARS) combined into one coronavirus? Are these not some of the educated citizens J.F Kennedy refer to? Must everyone go by the measures advocated by China who has refused to lock down her economic cities like Beijing and Shangai while the world economic slumps?
Furthermore in the light of absence of “no cure” syndrome, do we blame President of Madagsacar, Andry Rajoelina for a nationally approved medicine branded Covic Organics developed by Madagascar Institute of Applied Research and touted to cure the disease or the respected King Nigerian Monarch, Oni of Yoruba Kingdom, Ife Ife, His Royal Majesty, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, who hinted of the possibility of using African herbs in curing covid-19? Or the controversial chloroquine promoted by President Trump for curing the disease? Is it not realistic to advance a definitive clinical trial on these drugs (as Norvatis in UK is doing in regards to Chloroquine) than out rightly condemning them? and if found to be effective adopt their usage to save humanity than waiting for a vaccine that will take 12-18 months to develop and of which its efficacies might not be guarantee? Is vaccine the only acceptable means in curing diseases despite its resistance by many people? What eventually happen if in the course of vaccine development, there is a mutation of the virus or the world suddenly discovers that the virus have different strains in different geographical regions of the world? Will the world continue to lockdown and for how long? Who is saying that the world cannot return to its normality after the covid-19? Has the world not return back to its normal way after Spanish flu and SARS? Is this not mis-disinformation in itself?
Not minding certain irresponsibility in the social media, is mainstream media not gate-keeping the truth and ignorantly promoting information disorder (disinformation, misinformation and mal-information) by pushing out a single narratives? Why should mainstream media promote the China centric agenda of locking down and social distancing without taking a look at alternative models? By rubbishing initiatives and models that have not been proven to be wrong, is the mainstream media not also culpable of misinformation and disinformation? Shouldn’t we engage the educated citizens in the Covid-19 pandemic narratives to balance the media dialogue?
Interestingly, the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, has already observed that “the fight (against Covid-19) cannot be effective without empowering our people and without the full participation of all”. In that case, updated rules ought to have empowered WHO to consider non-state sources of information, such as details from non-governmental groups and other educated citizens in assessing threats posed by the pandemic. As rightly noted by J.F Kennedy
“… the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government and the improvement of education for all…”
Therefore, in order to encourage unpopular, decentralized yet proven alternative health narratives, is it not time we democratize and decentralize health “infostructure” as presently constituted by having Regional Health Organizations (RHOs) to minimize centralized bias and mis – disinformation?
On a last note, obviously, humanity will survive Covid-19. However, can we say the same thing about the racism and abuse of freedom of expression it has illuminated? Shouldn’t we be bothered about unfair treatment of journalists who try to find out the truth bothering on Covid-19? The detained reporter who inquires about the death of the whistleblower Chinese doctor and the violation of journalists’ rights by the incumbent executive Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State in Nigeria among others. Is it not right time we allow democratization of ideas, freedom of expression and human right takes its rightful position in the fight against Covid-19? In the absence of reliable data, how long should draconian countermeasures continue? For governments with totalitarian tendency, there is nothing abnormal but with a truly democratic minded government, there is need for concern. When asked about the effectiveness of China in curtailing the pandemic, President Macron was reported to have said though, China appears to be doing some things well however, there could be no basis for comparing a country who suppresses truth to that of those who allow information to flows freely. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Hence, isn’t right time we seek the full participation of the media and information Literate (educated) citizens to “enlighten the people generally, (so that) “tyranny and the oppression of mind and body (can) vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day” as Williams Jefferson rightly stated. Who should hold a title of an educated citizen, J.F Kennedy believed:
“He may be a precinct worker or a president. He may give his talents at the Courthouse, the state house or the white house. He may be a civil servant or a senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But (all that matter is that) he must be a participant and not a spectator”.
How we need to urgently heed his call today!
Thank you all for listening!
Dr. Suraj is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, Nigeria. He made this presentation on April 28, 2020 during an online webinar organized by UNESCO with other United Nations Agencies. The theme of the webinar is “Overriding Influence of Dis and Mis-information on the COVID-19 Pandemic”