This past Sunday, October 19th, Nipashe reported on a possible Ebola case in Mwanza‘s Sengerema district. The patient, Salome Richard, a teenager who sadly passed away the previous Friday, October 17th, exhibited many of the symptoms of Ebola. The problem, of course, is that the symptoms for Ebola are also mimicked by many other diseases including Dengue fever—-a point beautifully made by Mwanza’s Regional Commissioner, Evarist Ndikilo. In short, the late Ms. Richard did not die of Ebola, and even more tragic is that she was probably robbed of any proper burial, and by proper I mean almost any burial that is not for Ebola victims.
By October 14th, there have been 9,216 cases reported of Ebola globally, of which 4,555 people have died—a roughly 49 percent fatality rate. The death rate hovers around 50 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Although this is tragic, there is certainly hope. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has successfully freed itself of Ebola, given that it has now been more than 21 days (the incubation period between infection and symptoms) since any new cases have been reported of Ebola in the country. So it can be defeated.
The point of this piece, however, is not to document Ebola per se, but how the news of this suspected case quickly went viral in social networking platforms from Facebook to Twitter to WhatsApp and the implications of this for how people consume and interpret information, in an age where anyone with an electronic device can propagate information, true or otherwise. I am particularly concerned about this given the year ahead for Tanzanians as we move toward the general elections in 2015 and how rumors and falsehoods can create unrest and a breach of our much-envied peace.
To use this Ebola scare in Tanzania recently, let us explore the likelihood of such an event being true as follows:
1. Besides, the recent outbreak, Ebola has only been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Gabon, South Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire, but never in Tanzania.
2. The outbreak has largely followed air transport routes with the riskiest places being closest to the epicenter of the disease in West Africa and busy global air transport hubs. Although the Economist reports analysis done by Humboldt University‘s Dirk Brockmann that shows that if a 100 infected Ebola patients got on a plane from West Africa, 84 would land at another African airport, none of the African airports, however, are in East Africa. Not even Kenya (via their Nairobi hub) nor Ethiopia (via their Addis Ababa hub) feature in the probabilities. At least 1 of the 100 would land in the United States, however, as the story of Thomas Eric Duncan tragically illustrates.
3. As others have pointed out, not only is Tanzania not that connected with major air transport hubs, and thus has low likelihoods of having Ebola come to its shores, the sheer distances between the epicenter of the disease and Tanzania are wider than the distance between the epicenter and London, for instance.
4. Most importantly, in the very, very, very low likelihood that Ebola does come to Tanzania, the likelihood it will come via a teenager living in a rural district in Sengerema, who has no contact with a major city such as Mwanza, let a lone West Africa or West Africans is infinitesimally low.
Now, the moment the news of this possible case arrived in my WhatsApp over the weekend, I was quickly skeptical for the reasons above, among others. This is not to say that Tanzania cannot get Ebola, just that it is highly unlikely that it will, especially if our more connected neighbor, Kenya hasn’t yet.
Many friends and family were genuinely scared for me, given I was in Geita at the time. When I tried to reassure them that hardly anyone in Geita seemed to have even the slightest concern, and that it is most likely a hoax, like Will Smith’s death, they still feared for me. Of course, it was not a hoax. Just a false alarm. Nevertheless, it made me worry about how easily people will believe some piece of information, confirmed, true, or otherwise just because it came through some chain message on their WhatsApp or Twitter feed or Facebook news feed.
This is why it is very important for politicians and public figures in Tanzania, as the campaigns ratchet up, to be careful of their rhetoric. Such care is particularly important when one is laying allegations on another. People often remember the hoax or allegation, as it goes viral, but few will read the editorials or hear the corrections or retractions or invalidations of the original hoax.
A great test to use when hearing about something, anything really, that may cause fear or anger or any impulsive emotion, is what I call the Google test. Search the issue on Google, being mindful to write the search terms in as neutral a position as one can phrase. For instance, when I Googled “Ebola Tanzania” over the weekend, I got nothing about any confirmed Ebola case, raising my skepticism. Now, of course, given Sengerema’s relative remoteness, it could just be that news agencies in Tanzania are slow in reporting it, and thus it not showing up online yet, I thought to myself. So I Googled “Ebola Sengerema” instead and found one news source, the Nipashe story, that to be fair, was cautious by saying the case was suspected rather than the “confirmed” language spiraling across social media platforms.
In Tanzanian politics, the Google test may not always work, particularly when platforms like Jamii Forums may at times provide the most up-to-date breaking and factual news even faster than any of the media houses can, but at the same time can be the conduit of rumors and allegations, true or otherwise. In such an environment, I kindly ask my compatriots to have a default setting that is one of skepticism when an accusation or allegation is laid on government, political figures, or any one that is in the public eye. If all else fails, try the Google test, because if T.I. was not fazed when he had to perform at this year’s Serengeti Fiesta, why should we?
We may have 99 problems in this country, but thankfully, Ebola is not one of them.