Maverick Citizen

OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa

South Africa's first female heart surgeon, Dr Susan Vosloo. (Photo: sahistory)

It was another busy week for the volunteers behind Real411, where most complaints focused on anti-vaccination disinformation.

 

William Bird is director and Thandi Smith heads the Policy & Quality Programme at Media Monitoring Africa, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.

Week 25: Doctor, doctor, this is no bad joke

One issue in particular dominated the complaints – a video in which Dr Susan Vosloo, a heart surgeon, talks about vaccines and Covid-19. 

It has already been reported on News24 that Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), along with others, will be laying complaints with the relevant regulatory authorities about the doctor’s behaviour. We will make the complaint public after submitting it. What we wanted to be clear on is what we aren’t saying, and why we will be submitting the complaint. 

We are NOT saying that the public, doctors and other professionals shouldn’t criticise the government, big pharma and science. Pick just about any area and you will find more than legitimate bases on which to criticise any of the major groups, including on Covid-19 issues. As it is Women’s Month, we can criticise the government for not having done near enough to meaningfully resource and combat gender-based violence. Big pharma is so patriarchal that the World Economic Forum has even written about steps it can take to address gender bias. As for research and science, there are numerous peer-reviewed papers on issues relating to gender bias in scientific research. Big pharma spends billions more on investigating and seeking cures for those who can pay. 

We are not saying that the public, doctors, and other professionals shouldn’t be deeply sceptical and question governments, big pharma, and science. It wasn’t long ago that America had a president who lived in an alternative reality and lied as a matter of course. Big pharma likes to pretend that it cares, but its reason for existence is to make money. 

Our own experience with big pharma over affordable access to antiretrovirals is a clear reminder. More immediately, the work of the Health Justice Initiative continues to expose the greed and duplicity of big pharma. As for the science, scepticism is, or should be, an inherent element of the scientific process. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, there was not a clear advocacy to wear masks in public, but as the evidence that emerged was tested and the science scrutinised, the advice changed. Being sceptical of science is often how great advances are made. In many instances, however, the change in advice on mask- wearing for example isn’t well or sufficiently communicated, which can lead to erosion of trust. 

Finally, we are not saying that doctors shouldn’t express their own views and or opinions, or indeed play their own part in peer-reviewing emerging evidence, theories, drugs or practices. 

What we are saying is that doctors, because of their position in society, are seen to legitimately offer expert views on medical issues. At the same time, it is precisely because of their expertise that they need to adhere to the same principles that enable them to practice their craft. In early July we wrote about another doctor offering bad advice and disseminating disinformation, “Trust me I’m a doctor”. Disseminating disinformation causes real harm

Critically, disinformation also serves to undermine trust not just in the person disseminating but also in the entire profession. It’s one of the reasons the media agree to adhere to common standards and principles of journalism through the Press Council or the Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa (and why Real411 applies the same principles to digital platforms). If a journalist makes an error, it needs to be corrected. If they make things up, it undermines not just their own reputation but all other media. Remember what happened to the SABC under Hlaudi Motsoeneng? How the credibility of the SABC plummeted? More recently the 10 babies reports? The same applies to accountants, lawyers, and other professional and expert groups. If accountants invent figures or money – or like Steinhoff did, spread false information about their performance – they cause harm and they need to be held accountable. If lawyers make up “alternative facts”, they too can cause harm and need to be held accountable. 

When people undermine the framework that enables and legitimises their trust and credibility, they need to be held accountable, otherwise there is no point to it. Again, this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t criticise or question the framework, like the Health Professions Council of South Africa, for example. In the current instance, we submit that its silence on these issues merits strong rebuke from its members. Similarly, the accusation that holding people accountable constitutes censorship simply doesn’t hold true. Our entire constitutional framework is based on balancing rights so that we can realise dignity and equality for all. Disinformation destroys democracy.

So why are we submitting a complaint about Dr Vosloo? It’s not because we have any doubt about her skills as a heart surgeon. It is about the reality that in the video being widely shared she makes several claims, with no evidence to support them, and where there is strong evidence to counter the claims she makes. Let’s look at a few of these (they will be comprehensively unpacked in the complaint): 

In the first few minutes, Dr Vosloo makes a startling claim that “the vaccine was not brought in for Covid, but that Covid was brought in for the vaccine”. She does state it was merely a view, but one that appealed to her. Dr Vosloo allows this extraordinary claim to frame her video. 

She then goes on to say, as a means of offering context, that the usual expected death from flu annually is about 0.1% to 0.3% of the population. Now if we just consider that our country has a population of just over 60 million, the death rate so far is about 72,000 in about a year and a half. So, if you calculate the deaths per thousand of the population or in terms of the total population, we are at 0.12% of the population. It’s important to note that no references are given by Dr Vosloo, in particular for the 01% to 0.3% death rate for normal flu. Best estimates put that at around 7,000 – 12,000 annually. By December last year, even on conservative numbers of Covid-19 deaths, it was higher than most of our leading causes of death combined. This Business Insider piece provides a good breakdown here. These figures from the South African Medical Research Council paint a stark picture of the impact of Covid-19, stating: “The number of estimated excess deaths has begun to decrease, consistent with the trend in the number of confirmed Covid-19 deaths. Although more data are needed on the underlying causes of death, this observation is strongly supportive that a significant proportion of the current excess mortality being observed in South Africa is likely to be attributable to Covid-19.” On the first numbers Dr Vosloo provides, not only is there no evidence for her claims, but she uses them to underplay the scale of the Covid pandemic. “So, for such a small number of potential deaths there have been huge implications for a normal and healthy society.” Dr Vosloo makes a range of other claims about how the Covid pandemic is managed and controlled, including scaremongering by the media.

Dr Vosloo then refers to a drug called “Vitamin I” stating, “it’s been shown to be effective by many people treating these patients early and this has also been discredited continuously, even going so far as to writing scientific papers where it is called a right wing drug”. We presume that the drug referred to is Ivermectin, as an internet search about a drug being referred to as “right wing” commonly provides results for it and right wing groups have promoted it. See here. Ivermectin remains controversial, and the evidence for its effectiveness against Covid has yet to be proven. A recent study highlighting its effectiveness was withdrawn. Our own government’s position is summarised in this online poster. Dr Vosloo makes no mention of these widely published concerns about Ivermectin.

On the vaccine, Dr Vosloo states that people are not informed of the potential risk or other effective treatments. This is a valid point. Dr Vosloo then asserts that there is no safety data. Yet the Centres for Disease Control in the USA has the data available here

Continuing, Dr Vosloo states, “being vaccinated does not prevent transmission, does not prevent infection and it does not prevent death. Although it’s claimed to make that if one does get sick that your symptoms are reduced. I think practically, all the people I know if they get sick the first question I ask is when did you get the vaccine and 100% of my friends that had it [have] been sick with varying degrees of symptoms. The known adverse events include death. There are severe neurological complications with paralysis and Bell’s palsy.” 

Many claims are wrapped up in this section of her commentary. On the vaccine Dr Vosloo’s claims are inaccurate at best. It was easy to find evidence that while a vaccinated person can still get infected and still transmit Covid-19, the vaccines significantly reduce the likelihood. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Dr Vosloo’s claims about the vaccines relate to their side effects. Like just about every drug, there are side effects. Prescribed medications come with lengthy leaflets setting out the side effects. As we noted in our piece last week: Adverse reactions to the vaccine do occur (as possibly supported by Dr Vosloo’s claims that her friends were sick), but serious side effects are highly unlikely. (See these useful sites for more about Covid-19 vaccines and adverse reactions.)

We know from Centres for Disease Control results that about 6,000 people died after being vaccinated. While that sounds like a lot, we also know that the USA has administered over 340-million vaccines. So, the number of deaths is 0.0019% or around 19 people per million. The Centres for Disease Control goes on to note: 

“Reports of adverse events to VAERS [Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System] following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to Covid-19 vaccines.” In other words, a causal link of the vaccine and death has not been established. If we look at how many people die globally from Covid, the current rate is around 552 people per million – nearly 30 times the risk and these figures are already being affected by vaccines lowering the number. In South Africa the rate is 1,241 Covid deaths per million so around 65 times higher than the number who have been vaccinated. 

One of the most serious adverse effects that it seems can occur is linked to clotting. Here the most recent announcement by Professor Glenda Gray of the J&J Sisonke trial, which aimed at vaccinating over 477,000 health workers, reveals, “Out of all the vaccinated participants, only two people experienced the serious adverse event of blood clots with low platelet counts, but both made a full recovery.” 

Have a look at the CDC site for adverse reactions. We aren’t suggesting they don’t occur or that vaccine safety shouldn’t be considered and challenged. We know people locally have been struggling with reporting adverse reactions, but that isn’t a reason to misrepresent reality. 

The complaint we will be submitting will address these and many other issues raised by Dr Vosloo. It’s good to debate, to discuss, to challenge. But to misrepresent, omit, and deceive isn’t debating, that’s the scaremongering that Dr Vosloo is referring to – only she is the one doing it. All the links in this piece can be checked and challenged, look at any of the credible medical journal sites, they have full references, they have been peer-reviewed, and the evidence tested, and where it is shown to be wrong they are clear and open about why they remove or edit. Dr Vosloo’s video commentary offers no evidence or references, no peer reviewed papers or links, no sources for the numbers she cites. It may be her view, but it isn’t science, and the content isn’t medically sound and that is an egregious betrayal of her oath as a doctor. 

We need people to stand up and act against those who seek to exploit fear; those who display no compassion, or who seek to heighten fear. You can help by reporting digital harms to Real411. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce the spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content you come across could potentially be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it. DM 

Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411

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Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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