The hoax message was spread on social media platforms. (HELMUT FOHRINGER / APA-PictureDesk via AFP)

UNICEF officials refute false claim that agency released coronavirus prevention guidelines

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An advisory about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has been shared repeatedly in multiple posts on Facebook and WhatsApp alongside a claim that it was released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The claim is false; UNICEF said that the agency did not release the information; significant parts of the message are contrary to health experts’ advice about the coronavirus. 

One post was published on Facebook here on March 4, 2020.

Below is a screenshot of the post, which has since been deleted: 

Screenshot of the Facebook post

The Sinhala-language text translates to English as: “The awareness post issued by UNICEF to prevent infection of deadly coronavirus / The coronavirus is comparatively larger and a cell diameter is about 400-500 micro. Therefore, any commonly available mask will prevent the entrance of the virus / The virus does not remain in air and is grounded, therefore it is not airborne / When the corona virus touches a metal surface, it can live up to 12 hours / Therefore, it is enough to wash hands using soap and water / When the coronavirus touches fabrics, it lives up to nine hours. Therefore, either washing the clothes or exposing them to sunlight for two hours will kill it / When the virus touches the palms it can live up to 10 minutes. Therefore, disinfection can be done using alcohol / If the virus is exposed to a temperature of 26-27 degrees it dies / Warm water and sunlight will do this / It is important to stay away from ice cream and other cold food / The germs will be killed by warm water and garlic dipped in salt water and it will prevent the virus from leaking into the lungs / By following these instructions, the viral infection can be prevented / This is a translation of an UNICEF English article submitted by Doctor Nisali Ekanayake.”

A similar claim about UNICEF releasing the advisory was made on Facebook here, here, here, here and here. The claim also circulated in Malaysia, such as on Facebook here; in the Philippines, including on Twitter here and on Facebook here and here; and in India, for example on Facebook here, here and here.  

The purported advisory was also shared widely among WhatsApp users with a similar claim, as seen in the screenshot below:

Screenshot of a slide circulated on Whatsapp with misleading claims about COVID-19 quoting UNICEF

The claim is false; UNICEF officials refuted the claim that they released the guidelines.

“A recent erroneous online message circulating in several languages around the world and purporting to be a UNICEF communication appears to indicate, among other things, that avoiding ice cream and other cold foods can help prevent the onset of the disease. This is, of course, wholly untrue,” Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director for Partnerships, said in a statement on March 6, 2020. 

 “Sharing inaccurate information and attempting to imbue it with authority by misappropriating the names of those in a position of trust is dangerous and wrong.”

Jeremy Sprigge, a UNICEF Communications Specialist in Sri Lanka, also told AFP by email on March 5, 202 that the claims circulating on social media were “not issued by the agency and are therefore false”.

Furthermore, UNICEF Malaysia, UNICEF India and UNICEF Philippines both published tweets, here, here and here respectively, denying the organisation had released the purported advisory.

UNICEF also urged those concerned about the coronavirus to refer to the agency’s official website here.  

Much of information listed in the misleading posts is inaccurate. 

Regarding the claim that masks will block the virus, for instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that masks only provide limited protection and has urged only health workers and people ill with coronavirus symptoms to wear masks. 

“If you are not ill or looking after someone who is ill then you are wasting a mask,” the organisation said. “There is a world-wide shortage of masks, so WHO urges people to use masks wisely.”

The claim that sunlight and warm temperatures will kill the virus is also misleading. This article published on February 19, 2020 by Caixin, a Chinese financial and business news media group, cites several top Chinese health experts who note that while higher temperatures would decrease the survival time of the coronavirus, they do not affect its ability to infect. 

The posts also make misleading claims about the life span of the coronavirus on inanimate surfaces. 

The WHO notes that “it is not certain” how long the virus can survive on inanimate surfaces and states that the life span could range from a few hours to several days depending on varying conditions such as surface type, temperature and humidity. 

The claim that garlic water is an effective coronavirus remedy is also false and was debunked by AFP Fact Check here