A popular vegetable in Nigeria, ewedu, as cure for COVID-19 gained popularity in Nigeria in 2020, no thanks to misinformation about its medicinal values. At the same time, unverified claims that chloroquine, which was popular for the treatment of malaria fever, made Nigerians to buy them up from pharmaceutal stores in 2020. Both widely circulated claims are products of misinformation by so-called medical personnel in and outside Nigeria.
Origin of the Claims
Ewedu, as a cure for COVID-19, was made viral by an article published on April 6, 2020 in Arab Times, though the story is no longer on the news platform’s website. This reporter accessed it from the archive on wayback machine. The initial report had claimed that “scientific studies have proven that molokhia leaves (ewedu) contain flavonoid that helps zinc to enter into the virus-infected cell and prevent the reproduction mechanism of its RNA genetic material to stop the virus from reproducing inside the body,” citing Dr Fahd Al-Najjar, as the one that researched and documented the scientific breakthrough.
Source: The Wayback Machine
On the false claim that chloroquine cures COVID-19, former U.S. President Donald Trump popularized the idea that hydroxychloroquine was a possible treatment for the virus. This claim entered into the global radar in March 2020 and may have led to the decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as an emergency treatment for COVID-19 patients. But, the anti-malaria treatment drug was revoked by the FDA in June after documenting series of side effects.
However, the chloroquine cure claim garnered spotlight again in July 2020 when Dr. Stella Immanuel claimed that she had treated many coronavirus patients with chloroquine and they had recovered from the deadly virus. Immanuel owns Rehoboth Medical Center in Texas and is a registered physician for paediatrics and emergency medicine in the same state. The Cameroonian-born doctor was reportedly a pastor and televangelist, popularly known for mixing medical beliefs with her spiritual beliefs.
The doctor claimed at a press event in July 2020 that she had cured 350 coronavirus patient using the popular malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine but mixed with azithromycin and zinc while maintaining that social distancing and other COVID-19 precautionary measures were unnecessary. When the claim was posted by the website, Breitbart, it was retweeted by Trump and his son, Donald Jr.
Verifying the spread of the claims on Social Media
This reporter collated the digital footprint on the spread of this misinformation , using search engines that can extract information from social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook. This was collated and analysed using network analysis tool, Gephi.
Chloroquine as a cure for Coronavirus was entered into the search engine, Hoaxy by OSoMe, a tool for visualizing the spread of information on Twitter, using search variations, ‘chloroquine coronavirus,’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine covid,’ ‘chloroquine coronavirus Nigeria,’ and ‘Hydroxychloroquine coronavirus,’ it revealed over 2,200 results of tweet and articles shared on the micro-blogging site.
The network analysis of the spread of the misinformation on chloroquine, using Gephi, showed that it was widespread as seen in the figure below. The image below shows how the misinformation on chloroquine spread on Twitter, but the image tagged ‘Nodes with Edges’ reveals the linkages between the social media accounts that either tweeted or retweeted the misinformation on chloroquine from January 2020 to May 2021.
The image above depicts the spread of misinformation on chloroquine among all Twitter users across the world. A specific search revealed several accounts from Nigeria tweeted about chloroquine misinformation while their locations were turned on. These users collated below believed in the chloroquine misinformation.
Visualizing the spread of misinformation on Ewedu as a coronavirus cure, using search variations, ‘ewedu covid nigeria,’ ‘molokhia covid nigeria,’ and ‘ewedu coronavirus nigeria,’ revealed that over 1,800 tweets, retweets and articles were shared on Twitter about the purported claim.
The above image shows the spread of misinformation about Ewedu on Twitter Nigeria. The image tagged ‘Nodes With Edges’ shows the interlink of Nigeria Twitter users spreading misinformation about Ewedu as a cure for coronavirus. A TweetDeck advanced search was used to track some of these users which are collated below.
Several Facebook search, using variations, ‘chloroquine coronavirus,’ ‘Hydroxychloroquine covid,’ ‘chloroquine coronavirus Nigeria,’ revealed unrelated results on the spread of misinformation on the social media platform. Recall that in May 2020, Facebook placed ‘misinformation labels’ on about 50 million posts containing false information about COVID-19. Not only that, it also deleted the viral video of Dr. Immanuel claiming chloroquine is a coronavirus cure, from its platform.
Nonetheless, a search for the misinformation on Ewedu as a coronavirus cure revealed that it was shared on several public groups, such as United States of Nigeria and Talakawa’s Parliament (TP) and a user, Ade Eye Clinic.
Also, the spread of misinformation about chloroquine and ewedu as a cure for Coronavirus gained more momentum in Nigeria when Jesse Otegbayo, the Chief Medical Director of University College Hospital, Ibadan who survived the virus, he was quoted saying, “I took Chloroquine based on the recommendation by my physician. I have studies that have shown the efficacy of chloroquine.”
“For instance, during my isolation, I ate amala, gbegiri and ewedu regularly. Can I now recommend amala and ewedu for Coronavirus?,” the professor of Medicine said.
Jesse Otegbayo, UCH CMD, said regular intake of local meal amala, gbegiri and ewedu soup helped him fight coronavirus infection.
"I took Chloroquine based on the recommendation by my physician. I ate amala, gbegiri and ewedu regularly."https://t.co/puwgdl8ZWG
— Legit.ng | Leading the way (@legitngnews) April 13, 2020
But, he was quoted out of context by the media with sensational news headlines claiming that he recommended chloroquine as a treatment for the virus and advised that COVID-19 patients should eat more ewedu.
Beyond Social Media Misinformation
News Verifier Africa’s fact-check report revealed that beyond social media, some Nigerians believe Ewedu is a cure for coronavirus. A Twitter user identified as Mummy Makayla (MMK) shared how this misinformation has been taken seriously by some Nigerians without verifying its authenticity.
Some idiots told my mum Ewedu prevents Coronavirus ! I'm not even upset at her ignorance. It's the fact that she brought ewedu worth of #1200 to my house for chrissakes… how do I even start plucking it bayi…. ehn layi se party
— MUMMY MAKAYLA.. (M.M.K) (@eraytie) March 19, 2020
Some Nigerians take the ewedu claims seriously, and it has promoted the spread of the misinformation in the society.
Expert Opinions on these Viral Misinformation
Oluwatosin Ola, a nutritionist and public health specialist with Committed Soul Women Health Advocacy Africa Initiative (COSWOHI), stated that Ewedu is an edible plant that is highly nutritious and helps to strengthen the immune system by preventing tissue damage and tumour growth. However, the nutritionist was quoted saying, “in terms of Ewedu preventing COVID-19, research has to be done to establish that.”
She argued further thus: “Ewedu alone can only yield a little significance as regards boosting immunity. An adequate diet is vital for improving immunity together with other lifestyle factors.”
“This is also applicable to COVID-19. Ewedu cannot be eaten alone as a cure for COVID-19. Scientists are still researching to find a cure for COVID-19,” she said.
The nutritionist said further that, “apart from the vaccine that helps in prevention of COVID-19, more research work can be done on fruits and vegetables with antioxidant properties to determine their effectiveness in curing COVID-19.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) stated in April 30, 2021 that hydroxychloroquine is not recommended to prevent COVID-19 as it is susceptible to various side effects like increase in diarrhea, headache, nausea, drowsiness, and abdominal pain. This conclusion was reached after six trials on 6,000 patients who did not have coronavirus. Also, WHO discontinued the clinical trial of the drug in July 2020 after results showed that the death rate of hospitalized coronavirus patients did not reduce when compared to ‘standard of care.’
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC’s) June 2020 report on National Interim Guidelines for Clinical Management of COVID-19 stated that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are not to be administered as a treatment for COVID-19 due to lack of evidence aboutn its efficacy but it can be used for clinical trials.
The fact-check report revealed that the research and clinical trials conducted with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine validates that it is not a possible cure or treatment for coronavirus, hence the viral claim is FALSE. Also, there is no evidence, clinical trial or peer-reviewed scientific research that validates the claim that Ewedu can cure or prevent COVID-19, so the viral claim is FALSE.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored.