Ndewo Afrika!

Muraho bite Afrika!

“Yesterday you took me by the hand

And all at once I began to understand

But I never thought I’d find a friend quite like you 

Ooh! I never thought you’d care so much…”

Singing in that falsetto voice – this was music at its supreme best. I write this note with a heavy heart because I have just learnt that the legendary music icon of South Africa, Adv Steve Kekana, has passed on. Remember the famous duet that defied South Africa’s racism policies in 1983 – this is when a 25 year-old Steve sang a song titled, “I feel so strong” with a   23-year-old white singer, Penelope Jane Dunlop (stage name – PJ Powers). This was in the terribly dark days of Apartheid.

In our October 2020 Jambo Africa Online’s editorial note we reflected the role played by unsung heroes like Adv Kekana in making Africans proud of who they are. Remember his 1985 song, ‘I love you Africa’. At that stage, being African was not the most fashionable identity as it was at the height of the atrocities of Apartheid. He could have been arrested or even executed for sending, in song, such encouraging messages to an African majority that had started to flex its muscles through the mass uprisings led by heroic United Democratic Front (UDF). 

I dedicate this week’s Jambo Africa Online edition to you.

Are we winning the battle against COVID-19?

No country is immune to COVID-19! This is a battle cry to save humanity.  We should, however, acknowledge that this is not the first or only disease that does not have a cure. One can recall diseases like Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), as an example which has not stopped humanity from living. AIDS has, however, created a new way of doing things for everyone. Condoms and tests are part of the people’s behavioural mode which has led to a serious containment of the AIDS impact. People took it in their hands to prevent the spread of AIDS and there are no policemen running around to force people to wear condoms or not use razors used by others. It is individual citizens that are doing this for themselves and for humanity.

Our leaders (across the continent) can hardly sleep because whilst they need to deliver services to all citizens – especially prioritising the poor, previously disadvantaged and the rural – COVID-19 is making their countries’ budgets look like a drop in an ocean of budgetary constraints. 

The angst and sense of hopelessness within the citizenry is visible for anyone to see.  A lot is happening, daily. To some extent, the citizens of the world are faced with an information overload. The world as a whole and countries, individually, must take some comprehensive, but workable, measures to save what we remains of us from the piercing force of this virus.

Punching the holes

To come to a reliable postulation on this question, let us first punch a few holes in the existing state of affairs:

Certainties and uncertainties galore

There are a lot of uncertainties and unpredictability that currently inform the manner at play regarding COVID-19. These are outcomes of confusions which can also be attributed to the diversity of persons that could be cultural, locality, political beliefs, economic interests, levels of literacy, religion, etc. Poor vaccine availability and efficacy also bring challenges in the images that people have of the whole process. Poorer countries are struggling to get vaccination whilst richer countries have an abundance of these. Across the board, governments have been guilty of not countering fake news, myths and misinformation of surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Messaging considerations

There is also a lot said about COVID-19. Some of these are appeals whilst some are demands. I can assure you that the tone varies globally, continentally, regionally, nationally and even in families.

Governments have also consistently, generally failed to communicate to people in languages that they understand or using techniques that are accessible to the people. This leads to reports of citizens not complying or responding to invitations when invited. For example, releasing an invite to over 60 year-olds to come and get vaccination using the internet is unfair if you consider their challenges of inaccessibility to such facilities. 

Are our people sufficiently aware of the presence of COVID-19? I want to argue that, generally, they are not. 

I base this view on the consideration that a very serious number of people seem to not have a full grasp of whether the condition exists or not. They act in a way that shows less concern. They also seem undecided whether to wear the masks, wash their or do social distancing. The strange thing is that when they walk on the street, they put their masks aside and are just a centimetre away from each other.

So they comply sometimes and at times they don’t.

Thieving tendencies

There are also happenings that have a capacity to make the efforts by the leadership to be doubted by the ordinary person on the street. One of the most unforgivable political sins that have come out of this pandemic is the prevalence of corruption with state monies being syphoned off by unscrupulous politicians and businesspersons. Top officials and politicians have been caught with their hands on the cookie jar in a number of cases across Africa and the world. Some have expended COVID-19 monies for personal use; tenders have been given to companies that have hitherto no presence in the health sector; they have allowed purchases of Personal Protective Equipment at five-times the normal price; and, many other misdemeanours. 

Reactive leadership

Most of the campaigns waged against COVID-19 by various countries are, unfortunately, reactive. Scientists do their chores by giving reliable forecasts about the so-called waves to the decision makers. But, alas, the authorities tend to take the necessary corrective measures only at the start of these predicted waves with measures that are not well received by the citizenry. Some of the citizens regard this as a violation of their rights contesting that they are being ‘bullied’ by the authorities.  

Talking to our people is our only way out

Dealing with a disease whose remedy does not, as yet, exist calls for behaviour change. The consistent talk of a ‘new normal’ is an element of this behaviour change. This is crucial as it goes a long way in ensuring that efforts yield the required results. 

Communication as a behaviour change tool

It is my belief that the COVID-19 pandemic has become an enigma that looks almost impossible to defeat because of poor respect for communication protocols. Africans, I want to put this confidently before you as a fact and not a suspicion. Communication is not just an art. It is not just about conveying a message. It is, in fact, a science and a wider specialisation than that as it is a tool to empower the citizenry with the right, consistent and empowering information that directs the punch that each country must throw in defeating the virus. The best definition of what communication is, is that it ‘is a creation of meaning between two or more people’. Perception is an outcome of Communication. The recipients of the message act in response to the communication and the perception or interpretation of the message given. Action is an outcome of both communication and perception. I spent some time on these basics two weeks ago, so I will not dwell too much on them this time. What I want to do is to put forward my case and argue, not on a balance of probability but on confirmed facts that are stubbornly staring at us. 

History propagates for good communication

Reasons for the spread of COVID-19 are more expansive than acknowledged. History has revealed the importance of Communication in getting people to identify with a social cause or put differently, to adopt new methods of behaviour. 

Jacques Ellul argued that, even the church invented a form of communication called Propaganda as a tool in the battle between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. My belief, though, is that it started way earlier because its basis is to convince large numbers of people to commit to a manner of doing things. 

Another not-so-famous example of the use of communication to influence behaviour change is the rise of the erstwhile German Fuhrer and Chancellor Adolf Hitler. The strength of Nazi dominance in Germany was in nothing else but communication (that is, Propaganda). He controlled media access, arts, movies, theatre works, book writing and radio, amongst other communication channels. The Reich had a Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment which was, indeed, Hitler’s utmost weapon of influence. All nations use propaganda but some are overzealous in doing that. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s successor for one day), is the real driver behind German Nazi influence over the gullible German citizenry).

Across the African continent, the colonisers controlled communication to achieve a certain outcome. Freedom fighters transformed their countries into ones that allowed citizens to communicate freely and, thus, achieved a new mode of behaviour.

Communication leadership

Messages sent to and received by different people drawing from leaders are the ones that make and break the efforts against COVID-19. 

COVID-19 has thrust the world into a disaster and the communication competence must take the lead. Though a long list of other responsibilities must play their parts, it is my contention that captaincy and leadership of the fight against this pandemic must be co-led with the communication departments or responsibilities accorded the opportunity to co-ordinate what and how information is disseminated to the people.

The battle against COVID-19 is one that, as we all know, cuts across class, age, race, ethnicity, economic class and any other ism that you can think of. Therefore, speaking about it should be done in a tone that is receptive to these various categories or else it may feel like an imposition on others by some. The you-against-me tone does nothing but sharpen the contradicting views between various persons on what this is about and what needs to be done.

Avoidance of double-speak from the leadership

What complicates this is the doublespeak that seems fashionable from various leaders on COVID-19. I blame this stance fully for this uncommitted participation in preventative measures. For example, I have listened to leaders and opinion makers that talk so lazily about what they refer to as ‘Mask Fatigue’. 

What other fatigues can we talk of? Condom fatigue? Seat belt fatigue? No we can’t. If a person does not respect rules set to save humanity, he or she must not be given an understanding smile. This is very wrong and is responsible for some people finding it natural not to follow the rules. By so branding this ill-discipline as such these opinion makers are sayin: “well – we understand why you refuse to protect yourself and humanity”. 

Avoidance of grandstanding

Politicians, opinion leaders and scientists must, therefore, avoid having this as a platform for public disagreements on COVID-19 and use of words which, to an ordinary person, may seem unfair. Governments must bring their opposition parties onboard and not take unilateral decisions as this moves attention from the “fight against” to “who can fight it better”.

We must always, also, be aware of the multiplicity of the meaning of the words that we utter. Look at the following examples:

  • “With my history as an athlete, if I was infected it would be a little flu or a little cold”.
  • “We have it under control. We have one person coming in from China. We have it under control”.
  • “It’s going to disappear one day, like miracle”.
  • “There is nothing like COVID-19”. Really? 

These statements are disrespectful and irresponsible. 

The new COVID-19 lexicon

To deal with the significant presence of inconsistent information or plain absence of information, human beings are yearning for guidance in order to make sense of all the many messages that they are coming across. Therefore, the words used and the actions taken give people a reason to support or ignore or be suspicious about a process. 

It is key that the communicators make sure that people are on the same page of understanding when using some of these recently developed terms. I have listened to many media statements and, generally, I think the hard work done by the respective institutions gets undermined by their lack of attempt to establish a common understanding with their target markets. This may look unimportant, but I can assure you that it can be life-saving as it impacts on the people’s conception of what COVID-19 is and how they relate to the relevant prescriptions. Assess the following:

  • There must be consistency in defining the process towards the ‘NEW NORMAL’. 
  • How many of us understand when the experts speak of a ‘NOVEL CORONAVIRUS’? How different is it from ‘CORONAVIRUS’? 
  • Does everyone understand what the term ‘SOCIAL DISTANCING’ mean? Is it different from ‘PHYSICAL DISTANCING’? Is the lack of emphasis on clarity not the reason this rule for the poor observation of this rule in marketplaces?
  • Experts keep talking about ‘FLATTENING THE CURVE’ or ‘AN EPIDEMIC CURVE’. Will you blame anyone for thinking this person is just talking to himself or herself?
  • ‘James is on QUARANTINE’. Whilst you still trying to digest that, they say, ‘Stanton is in ISOLATION’. Again, the powers-that-be are addressing themselves.
  • Whilst listening to one expert he insists that Covid-19 is dangerous because it is ‘CONTAGIOUS’. Hardly a few hours later another person says it is ‘INFECTIOUS’
  • ‘Hospital A has run out of RESPIRATORS’. ‘Hospital Z has run short of VENTILATORS’. ‘Are ventilators and respirators the same thing?’, asks a confused citizen.
  • The word, ‘LOCKDOWN’ sounds quite scary – though it is not like that, it doesn’t sound too different from locking someone up (imprisoning someone).
  • ‘COVID-19 is ASYMPTOMATIC’. Okay, point taken. Now can you say it in a language that most or all persons can understand?
  • ‘COMORBIDITY’. Does everyone really understand this latterly widely used term?
  • ‘PPE’. There is continuous use of this abbreviation instead of the full term. I’d bet you my last cent, it is possible that a lot of people have not really given any attention to the meaning of this term.
  • ‘You must always use a SANITISER. Thinking about it, I think also this term been so widely used that it now forces people to purchase hand rubs that have alcohol-based content whilst not saying anything about ‘washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds’.

These words are becoming a part of our daily lexicon. The important feature is that everyone must be taught accurately about what coronavirus is and the social responses expected. A common meaning between a messenger sender and recipient is a symbol of a successful communication engagement. This will help in creating an understanding that each person can transmit when engaged in discussion with others. Even the users of the popular social media platforms will be protected from being stung with fake information. Healthier engagements will make such platforms places of correct information gathering and dissemination as opposed to the current flood of misinformation. 

Government leadership is also important in insuring that criminality is attached to the growing spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19. Repeat, repeat and repeat all the honest, reliable, transparent and correct information so that people can identify with the correct view on the status and required participation that each person must play.

Enjoy your weekend.

Andile Msindwana 


eMail: andile.msindwana@brandhillafrica.com

Follow me on Twitter: @MsindwanaAndile