First Person: Countering COVID-19 misinformation in Venezuela
The virus of false information and fake news which has proliferated globally as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, has not spared the crisis-wracked South American country, Venezuela. But the United Nations there is countering the misinformation by making sure that Venezuelans receive trustworthy and reliable information about the deadly virus.
Gema Cortés has been working for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the capital Caracas for the last ten months.
“Sometimes it’s not clear to me whether Venezuela is a happy or an unhappy place. Somehow, it seems both to me. Beyond the hardships that the country suffers, many Venezuelans continue to walk through life and insist on a pleasant attitude.
On the evening of 11 March, this pleasant attitude was tested when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is now under lockdown, facing the same threat of the virus that is upending life in many other countries. Since the first confirmed case was detected on 13 March, Venezuela has cut itself off from neighbours and the wider world with a nationwide lockdown enforced on 16 March.
With limited resources available to fight COVID-19, authorities moved quickly, closing borders and shutting airports to try to slow the transmission of the disease. It hasn’t been easy, but with humanitarian support they have managed to keep infection rates low.
A key challenge during this time has been the proliferation of fake news and pandemic-related rumours, often spreading faster than the virus itself.
I never thought the timeliness and quality of information could be so vital, helping people make the right decisions to ensure their health and well-being amid the uncertainty and fear related to the pandemic.
Internet as source of information and misinformation
In Venezuela, the Internet is a lifeline for citizens, with the use of social media and social networking key to obtaining objective and trustworthy information. However, it can also be a source of the exact opposite - misinformation.
In cities across the country, many Venezuelans received false promises through WhatsApp messages: “Stay home, the United Nations (UN) will bring you food.” In response, some people even contacted UN offices hoping to receive provisions.
A press release was issued rapidly, denying the information, and posters indicating false information were widely disseminated.
Other false messages, incorrectly attributed to the UN, recommended that people drink hot water or use disinfectants to combat the coronavirus. As the population was afraid, some took advantage to manipulate emotions for their own ends.
Combating this barrage of disinformation is part of the work of the Communications Task Force COVID-19. I am a proud member of this ad hoc outfit that brings together all UN agencies present in Venezuela.
We reacted swiftly, massively sharing correct and factual information to help the population to combat the pandemic and dispel rumours and misinformation that came with the surge of fake news.
The team collaborated with key local players, such as journalists, influencers and community radio stations, to disseminate relevant and up-to-date pandemic information as well as messages of hope and solidarity.
Through community radio, social media, television, SMS, posters and messages translated into indigenous languages, prevention messages reached millions of people in the most remote areas of the country.
As a result, people started trusting the UN as a key, reliable source of information.
During the lockdown, I have had the opportunity to see at first-hand a COVID-19 awareness-raising house-to-house campaign in Cuaricao, a neighbourhood of red brick and tin houses perched on the hills surrounding Caracas. I joined doctors and nurses on the front line and saw the amazing work they are undertaking.
Lockdown, hardship, salsa - and poor connections
As I write this, I enter my eleventh week of self-quarantine in Caracas. This strict lockdown compounded by a lack of fuel, have severely restricted movement in the city and to the rest of the country.
My UN colleagues, partners and I, are now meeting remotely, via a myriad of online platforms. Poor Internet connectivity makes it hard to be heard and hear others and in some ways, we are communicating less effectively.
Information and news overload can be overwhelming and impossible to process. When lockdown restrictions are finally lifted, we really ought to rethink how social networking and telecommuting have impacted our lives, and what lessons can be drawn.
In my case, most of my family live in Madrid, the epicentre of the coronavirus in Spain, and every day is filled with mutual, gut-wrenching worry.
Concern for loved ones at home
Having close friends and family who have gone through the illness with various degrees of severity and outcome, while being so far away from home, makes me feel helpless. I am spending countless hours on the phone hoping to give support, while at the same time trying to achieve some form of work-life balance, even as my workload has skyrocketed.
Still, I believe I should not sacrifice support to my loved ones as a result of the increasing workload.
Despite the challenges, including electricity blackouts, water and fuel shortages and long queues to obtain services, many Venezuelans often still manage to maintain their humour. And the way they seemingly use laughter to manage misfortune is what I love most about Venezuelans.
This attitude towards life and hardship is not dissimilar to how I feel in these times of COVID-19. Being able to reach out to happiness and humour among distress and all-consuming worries is what keeps me going during these challenging times.
And maybe the Saturday night virtual salsa parties via Zoom a little, too!