OPINION: Media must ensure citizens get factual reports on Covid-19
There are more than 415000 cases and 10000 deaths on the continent.
And Africa’s worst affected country - South Africa - is reeling with close to half of those infections and nearly 3000 deaths.
There is still no vaccine available and the only tool at the disposal of countries remains public health and social measures such as lockdowns as well as hand washing, physical distancing and wearing of masks.
Most countries have used these optimally and swiftly. South Africa, where the most stringent lockdown regulations have included restrictions on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, has been riding the Covid-19 wave along with AU member states and this will continue to unfold over many months. It is, therefore, useful for governments across the continent to have some idea of the baseline conditions in their countries during the pandemic and understand how to use them to plan their next moves.
One helpful tool has been a survey released by the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to Covid-19.
This is a consortium of global public health organisations including Africa Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, the World Health Organisation and the World Economic Forum as well as private sector firms such as market research company Ipsos.
The consortium’s survey, conducted in March and April in 28 cities across 20 of the AU member states, collected social, economic, epidemiological, population movement and security data to help determine the acceptability, impact and effectiveness of public health and social measures for Covid-19.
What they found was that two-thirds of people in the countries feared going hungry if they had to quarantine for two weeks, while half of the survey’s respondents said they would run out of money if they had to stay home for 14 days.
The lowest-income households expected to run out of food and money in less than a week.
The survey also found that less than half the people interviewed believed they faced the risk of contracting the virus. While they believed the pandemic was a national problem, there wasn’t a personal risk. More than 60% believed Covid-19 could be prevented by drinking lemon or taking vitamin C. And just over 40% believed that Africans could not get Covid-19.
Based on the recommendations of the consortium, African countries must build public health capacity to test, trace, isolate, and treat cases - the necessary foundation for reopening society. The government needs to ensure that they can mitigate the serious economic concerns of citizens when they implement public health measures as they wage the war against Covid-19. The media also needs to ensure that citizens remain informed about trends and developments nationally and on the continent.
In countries on the continent where the freedom of the press is an ongoing challenge this will prove difficult. But the media must be resolute in providing balanced and factual reporting. It is important for them to remember four lenses when reporting on a pandemic: lives, livelihoods, liberties and the long term.
At the current phase of the pandemic, the surveyed populations exhibit many similarities, both in terms of their general knowledge about the virus and their attitudes toward government responses.
But as the numbers of people infected increases and governments respond differently, this may change, necessitating the use of data.
Covid-19 has thrown down the gauntlet to the government, media and ordinary citizens to rise and weather the storm of this pandemic.
Terri-Liza Fortein is an independent media and communications specialist based in Cape Town.