It goes without saying that during a crisis such as the pandemic the world is currently facing; clear, consistent and concise communications can be an effective tool in curbing the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. But innovative communication has always been an Achilles heel for leaders in a crisis, and Africa is no exception, says political campaigner, Madelain Roscher, CEO of Status (Pty) Ltd.
“Giving credit where credit is due, some African leaders have stepped up with regards to taking decisive action to stop the viral spread of the Coronavirus by partially or wholly placing their countries in lockdown and shutting borders for trave and trade. But without proper communication on how to mitigate the spread of the virus, Africa’s confirmed COVID-19 cases will continue to rise,” says Roscher.
According to the 2019 Global Health Security Index, which ranks countries across the globe on their pandemic preparedness, using a scale of ‘Most Prepared; More Prepared and Least Prepared,’ none of the African countries fell in the first tier. Majority of the African countries were grouped in the latter as Least Prepared.
In addition to being ill-equipped and unprepared, according to Index Mundi, the majority of African countries do not have adequate medical facilities or the infrastructure to effectively deal with a pandemic outbreak. African nations generally have fewer than one hospital bed per one thousand people, and even fewer respirators.
“To flatten the curve, governments need to drive an understanding of the severity of COVID-19, which has caused a global shut down - for a reason. Whatever health initiatives are carried out should be accompanied by simple but effective communication solutions that can resonate with all citizens, regardless of their level of education.
“Communication efforts can only be seen as effective when stakeholders understand the crisis the country is currently experiencing; the potentially devastating ramifications the pandemic will have on every citizen’s life; and most importantly, the need to change their behaviour. It is only when the message is fully understood and the significance thereof resonates with our people, that the communication uptake or call to action results will improve. Once this happens, the infection transmission rate will stabilise or decrease, which means health care systems will be less stressed because fewer people will need hospitalisation,” explains Roscher.
She says the first directive governments should adhere to is issuing messaging that is factual; relevant to the current crisis; consistent with what has happened across the world; but most importantly, specific to the people.
“Governments need to supplement their COVID-19 messaging with examples of where the nation currently is in comparison to where the rest of the world was when the pandemic broke out in the worst-affected countries. When people start realising that the virus is spreading rapidly, is a reality in their own communities, and that the reported losses have become conversations about real people they know, that’s when the message of self-preservation will hit home and finally sink in. Governments need to tell relatable ‘stories' that extend beyond the washing of hands and social distancing, and start sharing the real-life tragedies of their people who have sadly succumbed to the virus,” Roscher continues.
With free access to Facebook and some other social media tools; bulk messaging such as pamphlets, SMSes and WhatsApp texts, which work perfectly well during election times; and state-owned media, governments have all the necessary channels available for effective communications.
But Africa also has other factors which may prove difficult in stemming the spread of COVID-19.
The United Nations estimates that more than 70% of African metropolitans — approximately 200 million people — reside in ‘crowded city slums’ or informal settlements, with limited access to plumbing or electricity. In those environments, social distancing and regular handwashing may be effectively impossible.
As of April 1, the reported number of confirmed people with the Coronavirus in Africa had reached more than 5,880 cases with South Africa, reporting over 1,350 cases alone.
“Beyond social and infrastructural issues, African leaders also face a bombardment of fake news, misinformation and an intense distrust in government. This is where governments can channel their various departments to speak in a unified; coherent voice to disseminate information about what individuals can do to minimise the spread and the risk to themselves, but also reiterate the official avenues that are available to citizens who need assistance,” says Roscher.
It is expected that African countries that are already battling with famine, wars and malnutrition, for example, will be the hardest hit.
Africa also has the highest HIV and Tuberculosis prevalence in the world, which means that many of these people already have compromised immune systems and are at a greater risk of contracting fatal COVID-19.
“Africa needs to realise that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work and that the continent’s needs are very different from those in Europe, Asia or the US. We need immediate infrastructural solutions such as water tankers, mobile testing stations, pop-up clinical care facilities, tollfree advice lines, and stronger policing of movement, and then, the citizens of Africa will win this war against COVID-19,” concludes Roscher.