Ebola in Uganda: The people spreading misinformation online

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Uganda has been battling an Ebola outbreak for several months

“I think there is no Ebola in Uganda.” Those are words of Battle Kay, as he is known online – a 28-year-old who lives in the capital, Kampala, and makes social media videos criticising the actions of the government.

But he’s also part of a new wave of people making unsubstantiated claims that the current Ebola outbreak is either exaggerated or entirely made up by the authorities.

Uganda has been battling Ebola for two months now. So far, there have been 141 cases with 55 deaths – confirmed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) – out of its 44.7 million population.

Wider criticism of the government’s record has become mixed up with speculation and unfounded claims about the disease.

What are the claims about Ebola?

The key misleading messages which are spreading have been:

  • the government is using it to justify locking down and controlling citizens

  • the outbreak is a cover to harvest body organs to sell illegally

  • the government is falsifying case numbers to attract funding or just to scare people

For example, a social media post claiming organs were being harvested with Ebola as a cover highlighted a visit in October by the UK’s Princess Anne, sister to King Charles.

It said there was no way she would have toured a country which had “real” cases of Ebola.

Screengrab of Princess Anne visited labelled "false"

Screengrab of Princess Anne visited labelled “false”

However, Princess Anne visited knowing there was an outbreak under way, partly because of her involvement with London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is helping combat the outbreak.

Although it is more deadly, Ebola is much less infectious than coronavirus since it does not spread via airborne transmission. It spreads between humans by direct contact with contaminated bodily fluids – blood, saliva, vomit, semen, vaginal discharge, urine, faeces and sweat.

Uganda’s Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng has dismissed the claims about organ harvesting as entirely false.

Screengrab of vaccine claim labelled "no evidence"

Screengrab of vaccine claim labelled “no evidence”

And with the impending rollout of a trial vaccine against the virus, some claims allege that Ugandans will be used as guinea pigs.

There are two vaccines in use against a different, more common Ebola strain, but this outbreak is being caused by the Sudan strain – for which there is currently no approved vaccine in use.

Three vaccine candidates have been approved for testing in a clinical trial. But the vaccines are yet to be tested, let alone offered to the general population.

Who are behind the claims?

The first group of people are, like Mr Kay, generally critical of Yoweri Museveni’s government.

He supports opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known as Bobi Wine – who lost Uganda’s 2021 presidential election to Mr Museveni.

Ugandans at a protest in London with a banner with a message claiming the outbreak is not real

A protest in London had a poster with a message claiming the outbreak is not real

The vote was dogged by accusations of unlawful detentions, torture and killings of protesters by members of the security forces.

These incidents have led some, like Mr Kay, to mistrust anything the authorities say.

Patricia Ssewungu is a nurse based in the UK, who continues to be very involved in political activism against the government.

She told the BBC that although she did believe there were Ebola cases, she thought they had been exaggerated.

She added this was because of what she saw as the “unaccountable” way money is used by the government elsewhere on health, education and Covid.

Others questioning the Ebola outbreak have previously spread misinformation about Covid.

Joseph Kabuleta, another contender for the presidency in 2021, has claimed the government is using the outbreak to get money. But he has gone further to allege Ebola vaccines are not safe, without giving any evidence.

“The ultimate purpose of all this is to use Ugandans as lab rats for an experimental vaccine, whose side effects might be very deadly,” he recently posted on Twitter.

He had also made claims about the safety of Covid vaccines, which are not supported by the evidence.

What has been the government’s response?

Health Minister Margaret Muhanga recently told the country’s parliament that politicisation of the epidemic was one of the challenges the government is facing.

Contact tracers attempt to find recent contacts of Ebola patients in Mubende, Uganda

The government says misinformation is making members of the public apprehensive

“Some politicians… are confusing the public by saying there is no Ebola and this epidemic is the government’s propaganda of mobilising resources,” she said.

“They even confidently say the Ministry of Health should leave the disease to spread and people develop immunity, forgetting what happened in West Africa.”

She says the negative talk could lead to an explosion of cases – even in areas where the government has made progress against the spread of the disease.

Marion Apio, who works for an independent fact-checking initiative in Uganda, said the most common thing her team has found is not targeted misinformation, but gaps in people’s knowledge around the disease, how it spreads and how to prevent it, especially in areas not affected by the outbreak.

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