The importance of leading communication during epidemics

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The absence of a COVID-19 vaccine elevates prevention measures as a country’s first line of defence against the onslaught of the virus. To create awareness of these measures and effect behaviour change, reliable information needs to be shared with citizens so that they can make informed decisions on protecting themselves and their families.

Communication that provides accurate, useful, and up-to-date information has become an essential tool in a country's mitigating strategy. The pandemic has however changed the way that many governments engage with their citizens as face-to-face interactions are limited due to the nature of the virus.

At the recent Africa Webinar on Leading through Communications during Epidemics in Africa and the Role of Media, convened by South Africa’s central communication agency the Government Communication and Information Services (GCIS), communicators and media professionals from across the continent exchanged best communication practices.

While it is recognised as a difficult period for many African nations, it was also an important time of learning particularly around public health communication. The new social distancing regulations present an opportunity to explore creative ways to communicate with citizens.

In order for communication to be effective, the panellists highlighted that technical health issues should be conveyed in a way that makes sense and reassures citizens. Communication should also be truthful and credible to overcome any mistrust that typically follows a pandemic.

During the webinar, Ebba Kalondo, the Spokesperson of the Africa Union Commission, shared the importance of collaboration and communication among African nations to limit the spread of the virus.  She noted that the continental response, coordinated by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (AfricaCDC), has been implemented across the Africa since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on 14 February 2020 in Egypt.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his opening remarks as the African Union Chairperson at the Conference on Africa’s Leadership role in COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Access, stated how Africa has been innovative in addressing resource constraints through the establishment of the AU COVID-19 Response Fund, the Africa Medical Suppliers Platform, and the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing.

Africa is on par with the rest of the world in responding to pandemics, and was a leading player in the development of a vaccine in response to the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Furthermore, Africa is a significant vaccine manufacturer and has developed innovative ways to deliver vaccines to areas on the continent that have no cold chains.

While many countries are learning how to deal with a pandemic, Africa has had meaningful lessons from dealing with Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Yellow Fever. Jessica Ilunga, the former Communications Director for the Department of Health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Ebola outbreak, affirmed that communicating in a timely and a transparent manner had helped to mitigate the impact of the Ebola virus on the economy.

She added that in a pandemic, information gaps usually create the space for misinformation which is often taken at face value and therefore difficult to correct. While a combination of traditional and new media platforms are useful in communicating, technology platforms such as WhatsApp and social media helped disseminate information quickly.

While technology has helped drive communication, its limited availability to access online learning in east and southern Africa has curtailed learning during the pandemic. New research by Unicef shows that more than half of the children in the region do not have the tools when it comes to online learning. There is a however a commitment in South Africa and across the continent to close the technology learning gap.

Media was identified as an integral part of disseminating information, conveying to citizens the risks but also measures of prevention. Dr Oscar Van Heerden, the International Relations Scholar at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), highlighted that communicators should continuously build relationships with media rather than wait for a crisis to foster these relations.

In South Africa our response to the pandemic was through a comprehensive communication campaign to inform the nation about measures to curb the spread of the virus. It focused on media engagement, paid-for advertisement in electronic broadcasting, print, face-to-face engagement and digital media platforms.

Transparency and constant communication became key tools to empower communities in understanding the virus and how to protect themselves against it. We remained focused on the key principles of keeping our messages clear, concise and consistent, with the aim of effecting behavioural change in our communities.

Our research also assisted us to obtain feedback on the impact of our messages which helped to identify gaps requiring intervention. According to the research, over 90 percent of South Africans know and understand the basic health protocols that they need to adhere to.

We also amplified our interventions by building partnerships with the private sector, and various community-based and faith-based organisations. They were provided information packages which were shared with their respective audiences. The GCIS also used community-based media to reach various communities at grass-roots level.

As the continent deals with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming months, communication will play an even more critical role in ensuring that our citizens have access to information and are empowered to make decisions in Africa’s recovery. Through the power of communication we can also convey hope to the people of our continent that we shall emerge stronger and more resilient.

*Phumla Williams is the Director-General of GCIS and Cabinet spokesperson of the Republic of South Africa