“I think there is no Ebola in Uganda.” Those are the words of Battle Kay, as he is known online, a 28-year-old who lives in the capital, Kampala, and makes social media videos in which he criticizes the government’s actions.
But he’s also part of a new wave of people making baseless claims that the current Ebola outbreak is either exaggerated or entirely made up by the authorities.
Uganda has been battling Ebola for two months. So far there have been 141 cases with 55 deaths – confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – out of 44.7 million inhabitants.
Wider criticism of the government’s record has mixed with unsubstantiated speculation and claims about the disease.
What are the claims about Ebola?
The main misleading messages that are spreading were:
the government is using it to justify blocking and monitoring citizens
the epidemic is a cover to harvest body organs to sell illegally
the government is faking case numbers to attract funding or just to scare people
For example, a social media post claiming organs were being harvested with Ebola as the cover highlighted an October visit by Princess Anne of the United Kingdom, sister of King Charles.
He said he could never visit a country that had “real” cases of Ebola.
However, Princess Anne visited knowing an outbreak was underway, due in part to her involvement with London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is helping to fight the outbreak.
While more deadly, Ebola is far less infectious than the coronavirus since it is not spread by airborne routes. It is spread among humans by direct contact with contaminated bodily fluids: blood, saliva, vomit, semen, vaginal discharge, urine, feces, and sweat.
Ugandan Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng dismissed the organ harvesting claims as entirely false.
And with the imminent launch of an experimental vaccine against the virus, some say Ugandans will be used as guinea pigs.
There are two vaccines in use against a different and more common strain of Ebola, but this outbreak is 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 have yet to be tested, let alone offered to the general population.
Who is behind the claims?
The first group of people are, like Kay, generally critical of the government of Yoweri Museveni.
He supports opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known as Bobi Wine – who lost the 2021 Ugandan presidential election to Museveni.
The vote was dogged by allegations of unlawful detention, torture and killings of protesters by members of the security forces.
These incidents have led some, like Mr. Kay, to be wary of anything the authorities say.
Patricia Ssewungu is a UK-based nurse, who continues to be heavily involved in anti-government political activism.
He told the BBC that although he believed there were cases of Ebola, he thought they had been exaggerated.
He added that this was due to what he considered the “inexplicable” way the money is being used by the government elsewhere for health, education and Covid.
Others who question the Ebola outbreak have previously spread disinformation about Covid.
Joseph Kabuleta, another 2021 presidential contender, said the government was using the outbreak to get money. But he went further by stating that Ebola vaccines are unsafe, without providing any proof.
“The ultimate goal of all this is to use Ugandans as lab rats for an experimental vaccine, the side effects of which could be very lethal,” he recently posted on Twitter.
He had also made claims about the safety of Covid vaccines, which are unsupported by evidence.
What was the government’s response?
Health Minister Margaret Muhanga recently told the country’s parliament that politicizing the outbreak is one of the challenges the government is facing.
“Some politicians … are confusing the public by saying that Ebola does not exist and that this epidemic is government propaganda to mobilize resources,” he said.
“They even confidently say that the Ministry of Health should let the disease spread and people develop immunity, forgetting what happened in West Africa.”
He says negative discourse 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 found was not targeted disinformation, but gaps in people’s knowledge about the disease, how it spreads and on how to prevent it, especially in areas not affected by the epidemic.
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