Remembering our COVID-19 journey

Friday, November 25, 2022

By: Phumla Williams

South Africa’s COVID-19 journey began on Friday 27 March 2020, shortly after midnight, when President Cyril Ramaphosa called on us to remain at home and to observe the 21-day lockdown period.  The initial lockdown was extended again on 09 April 2020, and a number of subsequent lockdowns followed, based on the need to save lives and livelihoods.   

 What followed was the greatest test our nation had ever faced; cut off from family, friends and support networks we all had to call on our inner reserves of strength and fortitude to keep going.

Faced with an unseen and largely unknown enemy, communication became our primary weapon to drive behaviour change. The story of the power of communication and partnerships has been brought to life fully for the first time through the publication of the GCIS COVID-19 Communication Digital Book, which will be released in the first half of November 2022.

This e-Book captures the work of South African communication professionals and partners, and tells how communication changed the course of the pandemic. The book looks back to pivotal moments in the fight such as the arrival of students from Wuhan, in China. It also explores our massive behaviour change campaign which focused on the need to mask up, sanitise, wash hands and social distance. 

It explores the evolution of our journey from uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, right up to the rollout of the most massive undertaking in our history in the form of the COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign. As it stands nearly 38 million vaccine doses have been administered, and this was largely achieved because our communication continually emphasised that vaccines are our best weapon in the fight against the pandemic, and reduce the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.

The e-Book also captures the anguish and pain we went through as a nation, and the loss and devastation we felt at the loss of loved ones.  The COVID-19 pandemic caused severe human suffering and took many precious lives from us, including the late Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu. The untimely death of Minister Mthembu rocked the GCIS and greater government communication family, and robbed our nation of one of its finest public servants and government communicators.

South Africans had to adapt to a new way of life for close on two years. We should never forget that the pandemic severely affected every facet of people’s lives and forced everyone to adopt new ways of doing things. It also affected how governments around the world communicated and engaged the public.

The reality is that nobody has ever faced a challenge of this magnitude, yet the crucial task of educating and reassuring the public remained.  The challenge was enormous and it took an immense physical and mental toll on those on the frontlines. In the first few days of the pandemic, especially during the initial declaration of a national state of disaster, hardly anyone at GCIS slept. Every hour was precious and communicators worked flat out to ensure continuity in the work of government.

One of the distinguishing features of how government managed this pandemic was listening to the people and their concerns.  We continually assessed our operations and amended our practices to best respond to various challenges.

One of the greatest challenges at this time was communicating while facing a virus that took away our ability to interact directly. GCIS found new ways to reach people through the use of digital platforms such as national portals, mobile apps and social media. From their homes, South Africans were also able to watch live streams of press briefings and announcements by government, we also ensured that most media briefings were broadcast live to community radio stations, which reach the far-flung rural areas in the country.

What this period showed more than anything is the power of partnerships. The media as a vital partner was provided with constant updates on what still was a fast evolving situation. Through regular virtual meetings, press conferences and engagements we kept the media informed so that they could impart vital information to the public.

The partnerships we fostered with civil society organisations assisted in the quick adoption of measures to prevent needless exposure to the virus. These stakeholders would also become powerful agents to inform people about the risks of the virus and helped us to deal with the rise of fake news and misinformation.

GCIS brought together business, labour, and civil society under the auspices of the National Communication Partnership on COVID-19. This partnership became a key driver of the vaccine rollout, and implemented more than 1011 activities on the response to COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout.

The South African Council of Churches spearheaded the VaxuMzansi Campaign, while Vaccination4Men was hosted by NEDLAC and the Solidarity Fund.  Business for South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Mining Industry and Faith Based Organisations assisted with spreading the message to vaccinate on their platforms.

GCIS made available a toolkit of content on the vaccine campaign to partners which was used on their social media platforms and retail spaces. At the same time CovidComms, a network of volunteer communication professionals, used content provided by GCIS and other stakeholders to package it in formats that were easy to distribute across platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.

Our COVID-19 journey will forever remain etched on our nation, and we will never forget the devastation and loss we suffered. However, this unprecedented period in our history also showed the power of partnerships, and as a result we have emerged stronger, more resilient and more united than ever before.  Our determination to build a better tomorrow remains steadfast and the partnerships we have built will endure. 

The GCIS COVID-19 Communication Digital Book reflects on our journey as a nation and the cohesive partnership between government, business, labour and civil society. Through communication, public trust was strengthened which would play a critical role in our success in driving back the spread of the virus. Communication also reinforced that everyone was part of the solution, and that together we would build back better, stronger and more determined to ensure a better tomorrow for all. 

*Phumla Williams is the Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System.