By Calvin Rock
The irony is glaring as Dr. Lucianna Wahome narrates her ordeal with Covid-19. A medical practitioner in Mombasa, she contracted the disease in early November just at the onset of the second wave. She was panic-stricken and believed she was staring death right in the face. The prescriptions of steroids, antibiotics and painkillers did little to assuage her distress from the symptoms of the dreaded Covid-19 disease. With hospitals either overwhelmed or too expensive to afford, Dr. Wahome was “admitted” to her bedroom with her medic husband and their daughter as the attending physicians. On the verge of losing hope, her sister in the U.S.A introduced her to the treatment she says was her saving grace.
Covid-19 may be novel but not the non-pharmaceutical interventions popular in its treatment. Many Kenyans probably still remember the story of Ambilikile Mwasapile alias Babu Loliondo; a Tanzanian traditional doctor whose ‘magic’ concoction brewed from a variety of herbs could allegedly cure uncountable diseases. This claim had zero scientific backing yet still millions of people from all over East Africa trooped to his home in Loliondo, Tanzania for the concoction. So, when there was an outbreak of Covid-19 with apparent lack of treatments and Scientists grappling for cures, it was not strange that many people resorted to non-pharmaceutical interventions.
Madagascar’s Covid-organics caused a stir as a “cure” for Covid-19 in the months following its outbreak. The plant-based tonic claimed to cure Covid-19 was almost immediately endorsed by the Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina. However, as reported by BBC the tonic failed to halt cases since by August the number of people infected had quadrupled. In the meantime videos and posts online popularized Steam therapy as the most effective treatment for the disease. Former Tanzanian president John Pombe Magufuli even endorsed thus sensationalizing it. His claim was however debunked by DW.
According to Dr. Wahome, the inhalation of steam infused with lemon, ginger and eucalyptus saved her life. She may not be the only Kenyan using, or at least interested in, steaming as an intervention for the Covid-19 disease. We use Google Trends, a tool by Google that tracks search volumes on specific key words, to get a glimpse of Kenyans’ interest on this topic. Interestingly, Google Trends shows that surges in search volumes for the key word “steam inhalation” coincide with the periods when Covid-19 was most hard-hitting. Interest in steaming seemed to inflate with each Covid-19 wave. The graph for search volumes and that for Covid-19 cases show some very close semblance. Google Trends data show that the interest in steam inhalation was over 5 times more than in Covid-organics.
With evidence of Kenyans’ interest in steaming, and perhaps their trust too, one question remains unanswered: what makes steam inhalation therapy so popular? In our search for the answer, we are led through a whirlwind made up of a cornucopia of viral posts on the internet and social media sites.
A dedicated search on Facebook, which is the most popular social media site in Kenya according to Statcounter, with the key phrase “steam inhalation” results in at least 60 videos promoting steam therapy for Covid-19 treatment. Some of these have as many as over 600 thousand views. Note that this search did not include posts and photos which would render the results probably uncountable. Moreover, the number of times such posts have been shared on WhatsApp can only be speculated but probably would run into millions. One such video of Tanzania’s Minister of State Selamani Jafo endorsing steaming has over 8 thousand views on YouTube and over 41 thousand views on Twitter.
Steaming has been at the center of controversy worldwide with neither the CDC nor WHO recommending it as treatment for Covid-19. BBC’s reporter Sima Kotecha traced another video by a Nilesh Jogal, founder of Jogi Ayurveda Hospital, to Gujarat in India and in her journey found people who even believed it. It is very easy to get lost amid the back-and-forth among the “experts” and the “self-proclaimed experts” as well as the infodemic that seems to be the twin sister of the Covid pandemic.
We follow up on one of the posts promoting steaming on Facebook in a bid to see how far it goes. On April 20, 2020 an account on Facebook bearing the name Vytjie Mentor posted a screen grab from an account (on a platform we couldn’t immediately establish) of a Tahir Mahmood Chaudhry claiming that the Chinese no longer go to hospital to treat Covid-19 but instead use hot steam as treatment. We embark on verifying the account and the holder’s authenticity using the information showing that he is the Executive Director at Ovex Technologies – Pakistan as the basis of our investigation. We find a Twitter account with the same name and the twitter handle @Tahir1964.
First, the multiple professional titles ‘Tahir’ lists on his Twitter account are indicative of a bogus individual. Besides, multiple sources indicate that the CEO of Ovex Technologies Pakistan is Faisal Khan and not Tahir as indicated on the screenshot. We dig further and find a LinkedIn account with the same name and picture. Here, Tahir is designated as an advisor at International Institute of Business Analysis – Pakistan chapter. This clearly contradicts the information on his Twitter profile and on the screenshot.
Moreover, Botometer, an application that gauges the authenticity of twitter accounts, gives the handle @Tahir1964 a rating of 3.1/5 implying that the account by Tahir is quite possibly a bot account. A bot is an automated social media account that poses as a real person often with hidden agenda.
A reverse image search on Tahir’s profile picture leads us to the website of an organization called Pakistan Agile development society where the photo seems to originate. Tahir Mahmood is listed in the organization’s website as a board member, casting more doubt to his profile.
Whereas Mahmood Tahir Chaudhry may be an actual real person, our investigation shows that it is very likely somebody is using his details to peddle false claims on social media.
Further analysis of the text on the screenshot leads to a fact check by AFP that debunks the information and rates it false. We trail this information to a Facebook group bearing the name Godwins Life Coaching where it probably originated, based on the post made on April 4 2020 with this claim. This misleading claim was also shared by a Gurdeep Singh Birdi on Facebook and debunked by an Indian News site. This is just a small piece of the puzzle and it is inconceivable how far this web of posting, sharing and reposting misinformation goes.
We ask Dr. Wahome what she thinks of the scientists opposed to this unproven treatment and she says, “I think that they are fighting something they don’t even understand.” She now “fanatically” promotes steaming. Nonetheless, the statistics are clear and the fact is Science does not show any causal relationship between using steam inhalation therapy and recovery from Covid-19. With a barrage of misleading and false information circulating over the internet and social media, there is no telling the extent of harm such information may cause. Meanwhile, Google Trends shows that search volumes for the key phrase “steam inhalation” over the last 12 months peaked between April 11th and 18th 2021 at the peak of the third wave suggesting increasing interest. This calls for concerted efforts to create awareness over misinformation.
“STEAM INHALATION” SEARCH VOLUMES OVER THE LAST 12 MONTHS – SOURCE Google Trends
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. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.