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Pandemics V

Communicating in Times of Pandemic Crises in Africa: Lessons from the future

Jean Chawapiwa


The year 2020 started with so much excitement, a new decade, and new beginnings. We were still in Q1 when COVID-19 changed everything! The surprising and unexpected global crisis that ensued became a major historical moment, when the future as we had envisioned it changed direction. A moment that we will look back on and realise that life as we knew it was never going to be the same again.

What we know is that the disease causes respiratory illness (like the flu) with symptoms such as a cough, fever, and in more severe cases, difficulty in breathing. You can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, avoid touching your face, and avoid close contact (2 meters or 6 feet) with people who are unwell. We also know that people can seem well and can infect others with the virus.

Media reporting on 5th April 2020 informed us that globally there were 1,203,485 confirmed infections, 247,001 people had recovered from the infection and astonishingly, there have been 64,784 deaths. For the continent of Africa, World Health Organization (WHO) reported on the 4th April that there are 5,940 confirmed infections, 486 people who had recovered and 234 deaths. For South Africa the figures were 1,585 confirmed infections, 95 recovered and 9 deaths.

The fear gripping Governments at that time and articulated by World Health Organisation (WHO) was the following: “The virus is threatening fragile health systems on the African continent. Infections are increasingly spreading not only between African countries but within different localities in the hardest-hit countries. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where COVID-19 cases were at first confined to Kinshasa, now a handful of cases have been reported in the eastern most regions of the country that were until recently in the grip of an Ebola outbreak. In South Africa, all provinces have now reported cases. The outbreaks in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal are also widespread”.

The rapid global and regional spread within a short period, impacting all spheres of life, left no one in any doubt, that this was one of the biggest crises faced by the human race. How do we then learn from the communication that ensued to ensure that when a crisis of this nature happens, our collective leadership are able to move swiftly into the highest levels of crisis communication management? How do we have impactful communication that will reach the majority (if not all) of our people and thereby save lives and livelihoods?

History has shown us what true leadership looks like in times of crisis: whether public or private sector, the bigger the crisis the bigger the judgement. As we look back and review the effectiveness of the crisis communication management during the outbreak of COVID-19, we review what history has taught us.

  • Create a centralised crisis response team
    Include key decision makers and varied stakeholders; mandate teams to create subgroups and task teams; meet, engage caucus regularly; communicate early and often; be transparent and be the source of regular updates; respond rapidly to concerns to avoid speculation and conjecture; stay connected to key areas of concern e.g. hospitals and communities in distress; act quickly to dispel rumours and fake news; use diverse groups to help develop appropriate messaging.
  • Understand the needs and anxieties of your varied audiences and build trust
    Lead and collaborate with wide-ranging stakeholders, monitoring and understanding their needs; explain the decision-making process you are following; be proactive and empathetic with communication; avoid stigmatisation; protect patients and deceased; admit mistakes and show interest in wanting to collaborate on solutions; don’t over-reassure by minimising their concerns; talk about challenges, benefits and risks.
  • Ensure inclusion of different language groups
    Understanding and trust are often unlocked by using the right dialect for each group; working through local leadership and representatives who will reach all genders, communities, age groups; don’t forget Sign language(for the hearing impaired) is a language; explain jargons and complex science.
  • Take action
    Be seen to be leading and making decisions, even when still trying to understand the nature and impact of the crisis; be transparent, honest and open to maintain credibility; help to mobilise and stay close to strategic groups with resources, that are willing to help.
  • Regularly review and learn
    in the analysis of the plan and actions, ensure you are in control; have effective monitoring and evaluation; ensure you were able to continually move public opinion in your favor, mobilising and shifting the majority to support your plan; review all against intended outcomes.

South Africa case review

On Monday March 23, 2020, the President of South Africa Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, supported by Ministers and Deputy Ministers of various key Ministries, announced and clearly outlined the 21 days of lockdown regulations. The lockdown took effect midnight on Thursday, 26 March 2020. The well-planned, strategic and synchronised government announcements showed leadership and planning at its highest level. The implementation was immediately visible, leading to a multitude of varied government announcements, policy changes and media releases related to COVID-19.

The local and global media channels, and all social media platforms seemed to talk about literally nothing else. We were inundated with 24-hour reporting from around the world, statistics of new infections and overseas deaths, and country-by-country analysis. In short it was obvious that many global medical facilities were not coping with this pandemic.

Varied interpretations of the crisis were trending globally using wide-ranging channels of communication. This included all forms of media including WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram accounts sharing jokes, memes, videos and songs around the world. This avalanche of information was soon followed by advice from wide-ranging sources, to avoid the constant bad news to safeguard our sanity and manage fear.

On March 23, the reported number of confirmed cases in South Africa increased six-fold in just eight days from 61 cases to 402 cases. The nationwide lockdown for 21days which was enacted in terms of the Disaster Management Act and would end on Thursday 16 April 2020. In a live broadcast widely publicised, the President explained the decision of the recently set up National Coronavirus Command Council, which he headed: “This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people …While this measure will have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and on our economy, the human cost of delaying this action would be far, far greater”.

The President explained that during the nationwide lockdown, all South Africans would have to stay at home, he also clarified that under the lockdown, individuals would not be allowed to leave their homes except to do the following: buy food, seek medical care, get medicine or medical supplies, or to collect social grants.

Following the President’s lockdown announcement, panic buying and hoarding, became extreme; some food shops had empty shelves, and toilet paper was, for some reason, a favorite purchase. Sanitiser became a commodity and the unscrupulous price hikes became criminal offences. Those trying to hide their avaricious intentions, just moved on to shop in different locations until the evening of the shutdown.

Then came the silence on 27 March, but not total silence: workers in townships continued to try and go to work; commuter taxis continued to move the masses.

On 30 March 2020 the Social Grants were released for collection. Media reports around the country showed long queues of people waiting to board commuter taxis, waiting at collection points, waiting to buy groceries. Hundreds of poor, elderly and unemployed people waiting in different locations across many provinces.

The mobilised armed forces and the police were visible, requesting and at times trying to enforce social distancing. It was obvious there was a big problem: why were so many people displaying no fear of the threat of catching or spreading the deadly COVID-19 virus?


Communication breakdown

The national and provincial government of South Africa, and especially the President, Deputy President, Ministers of Health, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Police; Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation, Higher Education, Home Affairs, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and many more, had very high visibility. The country had been given constant and regular live broadcasts, media announcements backing the President’s announcement.

In the days that followed announcements were made about stimulus funds for business and employees, warnings and legislation on price increases, action on water shortages and urgent deliveries planned to communities, medical resources and testing, movement of the homeless, borders and transport, and so much more. But it was obvious that in some areas the mass communication and constant public health education had missed many of the population. The questions arose: had the mass communication and public health education been unintentionally ignored by the poor majority, or had it unintentionally missed many of the population?

An article from The Economist published on 30 March 2020 started with news that the majority of the urban poor and rural populations don’t know enough about COVID-19 to be afraid. The report said these communities were hearing the word, ‘Coronavirus’, but believed that it was a disease for rich and middle-class people! In other words, only those who travel the world, especially those connecting with people from the highly infected countries, are at risk.

The security guards, domestic workers, shop assistants and casual labourers, especially those working in the suburbs, had seen the rich and middle-class stocking up on food and supplies as the lockdown was looming. Low-paid workers and social grant dependents did not have the resources to stock up or even think of hoarding toilet paper or any other products.

The government’s fast and strategic move to quickly implement a lockdown, was in part meant to stop or at best to minimise the spread of the Coronavirus into densely populated communities. The majority of these live with five to eight living in a badly ventilated room, and homes built with corrugated iron and cardboard. Had the best laid plans overlooked the fact that the most vulnerable are dependent on the social grants, unable to self-isolate when symptoms start?

Crisis communication lessons during the Ebola crisis and HIV pandemic, had taught us the importance of ensuring that ALL our people must hear and understand the nature of the pandemic, how it impacts them personally, and what actions must be taken by each individual to minimise infection.

Many African countries in the midst of the HIV crisis, implemented innovative and memorable communication strategies, partnering with wide-ranging stakeholders, ensuring communication was in all official languages, and reached urban and rural populations.

The South African ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), like many other political parties, has perfected the art of mobilising community activists, Chiefs, youth and women, to get their messages out when campaigning for elections.

South Africa has 11 official languages, 12 when we include Sign Language, of which English is just one. Yet it seemed as if the majority of the prominent communication, speeches and publications for COVID 19, have been in English. Government and support business websites, telephone hotlines and a WhatsApp number were quickly set up and regularly updated. Some of these sites offered other languages in text and voice, sharing information on the virus, its prevention and how to get help if you have the symptoms.

With a population of 51 million people of which 43% are underemployed and many undereducated, effective communication needs to reach, empathise and engage the vast majority. Mobile communications provide access to many, but reach is greatly limited by the cost of data. According to www.statista.com/statistics, “Today about 20 to 22 million people in South Africa use a smartphone, which accounts for about one third of the country’s population. The overall number of mobile connections is much higher though with more than 90 million, as feature phones are still popular and widely used in the country and on the continent overall”.

China, in the midst of its Coronavirus crisis, proved that a lockdown where people stayed at home, was their saving grace, even after the virus had killed over 3,200 people. The China Shutdown allowed the government and health officials to turn the tide, lowering the rate of new infections, thereby stopping the escalating death count. Spain, the UK and USA moved slower, proving that failing to act decisively to enforce a complete lockdown, leads to high infections and deaths in a short period.

Did South Africa have alternative solutions to lockdown? Time was short, the infections in country were rising and urgent action was required, even in the face of complex historical challenges. There were some actions that may have had some impact, like ensuring access to masks and sanitisers for those who waited at the various service points on social grant collection days. Would this have made a big difference? Maybe for some.

Other forms of assistance came from a solidarity fund including payment holidays on loans, reduced interest rates, fuel price drops, schemes and support for vulnerable SMMEs from both private and government sectors to cushion the economic blow. This was all good for the country, but it has to be noted that the majority of this generosity would not extend to many people who live on less than $2 a day.

Scientists are telling us that more viruses are coming. It’s COVID–19 for 2020 but what next? The lessons for South Africa are also lessons for most of the 54 African countries. South Africa’s government showed incredible national leadership, quick implementation, resources mobilisation, collaboration of varied stakeholders, leading on information and learning from the leadership lessons that history has taught us. But this season is far from over, are we prepared for the post Lockdown communication? and the post COVID-19 crisis communication management?

As we look back from the future to what happened during those early weeks, we understand that we must own our power, care for our people and develop African solutions to challenges and problems that hold us back as a people. We have complex problems that have to be resolved. To move forward we must rid our story of gender-based violence, corruption, poverty, high unemployment, violent crime, racism, xenophobia, and poor communities – the list is endless.

Part of the African solution is knowing that effective crisis communication is the responsibility of everyone, all working together, looking out for one another, reaching out to spread the message.

So COVID-19 is an opportunity for significant change! Through the effective crisis communication of pandemics, we need to make sure we create the future we desire.



  • http://whotogo-whoafroccmaster.newsweaver.com/JournalEnglishNewsletter/1x9518utfz7y48iiujdam4?lang=en&a=6&p=56762272&t=31103673
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_South_Africa
  • https://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/president-ramaphosa-announces-nationwide-lockdown
  • https://hbr.org/2020/03/communicating-through-the-coronavirus-crisis
  • https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus-covid-19
  • https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/china/
  • https://www.statista.com/statistics/791885/africa-mobile-phone-shipment-by-quarter/


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