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Infectious Diseases

Updated 30 March 2020

FAKE NEWS ALERT | WhatsApp voicenote 'was not from me' - Groote Schuur virologist

A lengthy WhatsApp voicenote making outrageous claims about the coronavirus crisis is spreading like wildfire. But a Groote Schuur Hospital expert denies that the person speaking is her, as a message accompanying the voicenote claims.

A lengthy WhatsApp voicenote making some outrageous claims about the coronavirus crisis is spreading like wildfire in South Africa.

In an attempt to give the voicenote credibility, an accompanying message claims the voice is that of a Groote Schuur Hospital expert.

But the voicenote was definitely not recorded by the expert, Health24 has established.

The origin of the clip is unknown and the person speaking is yet to be identified.

The accompanying text message claims: "This is a voice note from Diana Hardie the Head of Virology, Grooteschuur Hospital, Cape Town. It's her latest data on the Corona Virus and what she is preparing for... it's doesn't predict a pretty short term future... (sic)"

Not her

But Dr Hardie told Health24 that the voice in the clip was not hers.

In an emailed reply, she said: "I would like to put on record that this voicenote was not from me or any other virologist at Groote Schuur Hospital.

"The CEO of Groote Schuur has issued a statement distancing themselves from it."

The statement, circulated by the Western Cape government's (WCG) health department, reads: "We are aware of the WhatsApp messages doing the rounds of the Head of Virology speaking about the Covid-19 scenario. 

"We wish to stress that this message did not emanate from our virology department and add that this message does not represent the views or policies of the WCG: Health.

"Management regrets the confusion caused by this. We should all adhere to being responsible and heed the call to stay home."

Health24 asked the hospital for comment but Groote Schuur Hospital communication officer Alaric Jacobs referred us to the provincial health department's statement and said Dr Hardie would not be available for comment.

When Health24 asked if the relevant departments would attempt to establish the origin voicenote, Jacobs said the department was unclear of the source of the message, but stressed that it informed the public that the content was not the health department's view.

Don't give it more air time

In the voicenote, which is nearly 16 minutes long, someone claims that "a lot of things have happened within the last two weeks and I've kind of just been told to keep a bit quiet so we could just see exactly where things are going.

"And obviously with the president's Station of the Nation thing, we were allowed to then, all of a sudden, you know, institute a few things and talk about the disease process because I mean, you don't want to drive havoc and fear into everybody."

A little bit further along, it escalates dramatically and serious allegations are made: "And the big thing that everybody needs to know is that, like, we're probably in this pandemic and crisis because of the fact that, though China delivers a lot of stats, they've kept this virus under cover, you know, not wanting the economy to be affected for a long time.

"I mean the first cases are already described by them, like in June of last year, and they only let the World Health Organisation know about the virus, probably about November/December where it kind of got to a point where medical staff were insisting upon having the rest of the world know about this."

Health24 has listened to the entire voicenote but to avoid giving it anymore air time, will not publish it or any further quotes from it.

The government has warned of repercussions for people who create and spread fake news.

On the government's website, it clearly says: "Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the coronavirus Covid-19 is liable for prosecution. Verify the information before you share information."

Social media giants to play their part

Business Insider South Africa reported on Friday that spreading fake news about Covid-19, or the government's efforts to stop its spread, is already a crime in terms of South Africa's disaster regulations.

A six-month jail term can be imposed if it is done with the deliberate attempt to deceive.

WhatsApp, the instant messaging giant which Facebook owns, is also expected to play its part.

Under new regulations which Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams gazetted on Thursday, a broad range of telecommunications players have "the responsibility to remove fake news related to Covid-19 from their platforms immediately after identified as such".

'Fake news tends to be more dangerous than the virus'

Earlier this week, News24 reported that three people would be charged in connection with fake news.

The three people were the alleged source of two fake news articles which went viral on social media.

The articles were about Chinese people inside a building at the Lebombo border post, who were supposedly using corrupt means to enter South Africa after they were refused entry at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. The post labelled South Africa a "banana republic".

The other fake news article was about Japanese nationals who flew to Mozambique and tried to buy their way into South Africa, the minister said. 

"Fake news tends to be more dangerous than the virus itself because it worries people.

"Because of this, and because we are in possession of the original source of the picture, I've instructed my officials to lay a charge with the police.

"This is the first test case of whether people posting fake news can be charged or not," Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said.

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