As COVID-19 started spreading in Ghana earlier this spring, Elisabeth Efua Sutherland’s colleagues began forwarding audio messages claiming that if she drank apple cider vinegar or bathed using a certain “miracle medicine,” she wouldn’t contract the virus.
Myths such as these, with no scientific evidence or medical backing, have been circulating widely on social media in Ghana and elsewhere. A recent survey indicated that 50% of what Ghanaians know about the coronavirus is misinformation, with the leading myths being that spraying alcohol on one’s body can kill the virus and that eating garlic helps prevent infection.
Misinformation can be dangerous, even deadly, during outbreaks. In the fight against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, many don’t believe the disease exists or associate its spread with healthcare workers and avoid seeking treatment. “It is as much a crisis of communication as it is a health crisis,” said David Bisimwa, humanitarian coordinator for CARE in the DRC, last year.
While Ghana’s official language is English, nearly 80 languages are spoken in the country. “All these [fake] messages were sent in Twi or in other local languages, and that’s why they’re being circulated — because people can’t find other options,” Elisabeth says.
languages are spoken in Ghana
As of May 18, Ghana had nearly 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths. The government has taken strict measures to contain the outbreak, including closing all schools and universities, suspending public events and all international flights in and out of the country, in addition to closing the country’s borders.
As more cases began emerging in Ghana, Elisabeth says she wanted to ensure people like her colleagues had reliable information in local languages, so she started an initiative to translate health messages into various languages. Along the way, she collaborated with Farmerline, a company based in Ghana that uses technology to support farmers and was also looking to translate health messages.
Elisabeth, an artist and performer, used information from the World Health Organization (WHO) to write scripts about hand washing, COVID-19 symptoms, and common terms associated with the virus such as social distancing and flattening the curve. She put out a call on social media and dozens of people responded, wanting to help translate. Within 48 hours, she’d received translations in 15 languages including Twi, Ga, Ewe, and Hausa.
The health messages are recorded as voice notes on WhatsApp, which volunteers have been disseminating and asking recipients to forward to others who speak the language, akin to chain mail.
While the scripts are based on the WHO’s information, they have been adapted to incorporate local examples. The audio message on hand washing, for example, invokes an analogy using a popular Ghanaian dish: “Imagine that coronavirus is your fufu bowl dish, covered with palm oil. You try to wash your bowl with water alone, but that palm oil is not coming off the dish. You need some soap to dissolve grease. So soap or alcohol are very, very effective against dissolving that greasy liquid coating of the virus,” the message explains.
The voice notes help Ghanaians like Victoria Osei better understand the virus. The food vendor in Kumasi speaks Ahanta and says she hadn’t come across any information on COVID-19 in her language.
“I am very scared about the virus, but the messages are helpful. I now ensure my hands are washed and I practice the idea of social distance,” she says.
Leila Serwaah Khalid, who heads Farmerline’s marketing and communications, says the company felt it needed to get involved in public education around the coronavirus. A group of volunteers, including professional translators, have been supporting the company in recording health-related audio messages.
Leila says many farmers who live in rural areas and are economically disadvantaged, don’t always have access to the Internet. Additionally, 20% of Ghana’s population is illiterate, and Leila says this figure is 40% for the farmers they work with, which poses a challenge in accessing information about COVID-19.
“These are people we care about and we have the tools to help them, so why not educate them?” she says.
Through the messages, I have come to realize that we are all at risk.
Farmerline was working on translating heath messages into various languages when they heard about Elisabeth’s initiative. “We realized we all want the same thing… Right now, we are pooling together efforts,” she explains.
The scripts and voice notes are available online, so that volunteers can access the scripts and upload translations in more languages.
“When you can crowdsource information like this, it’s a lot quicker,” Elisabeth says. “As Ghanaians and as people who live on the planet together, we can’t afford to not … do anything.”
Farmerline is disseminating these health messages through their platform. Approximately 40,000 farmers across Ghana receive daily calls from the company about climate-related advice and farming tips. Now, they’re hearing COVID-19 related messages, too. The messages have already been sent to thousands of farmers on their mobile phones.
Margaret Addai, a cocoa farmer in Bipoa, says the messages are essential in reaching people like her. “We live in rural communities. Not everyone here has access to a radio set that will help them keep abreast with news, but even the poorest in these communities have access to a [basic mobile phone].”
Margaret says the messages on handwashing are changing behaviors of people in her community.
“Initially, I thought [COVID-19] was just in the big cities and couldn’t affect people in rural communities, so I really couldn’t be bothered,” Margaret says. “But through the messages, I have come to realize that we are all at risk.”