As of 6 May 2020, the total estimated number of COVID-19 cases globally stands at more than 3.5 million, while the number of deaths is currently pegged at just below 250 000, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Although in some cases, the ‘curve’ of infection is beginning to flatten in most countries, new cases continue to be recorded in different contexts across the globe. In Africa, the cases continue to be on the rise, with latest figures indicating that more than 40 000 people have been infected while more than 1500 people have succumbed to the virus.
Southern Africa has been affected the most, with South Africa recording the highest number of infections and deaths. WHO has consistently warned African states to be on alert, arguing that the continent can become the next epicentre of the pandemic if appropriate measures are not put in place.
The issue of ‘appropriate measures’ being put in place to deal with the pandemic raises numerous questions on the ability of African countries to deal with the virus.
Specifically, the health systems of most African countries are objectively regarded as frail and may not be able to cope with numerically high cases of the virus. A case in point is the death of a Zimbabwean journalist who allegedly died because of inadequate/absence of equipment to deal with COVID-19 cases in the country.
In South Africa and Zimbabwe, some nurses and doctors at some point, downed tools over the lack of protective equipment (PPE); reflecting the challenges besetting most African health systems.
In some cases, sufficient testing is not being done, apparently it is only reserved for those showing symptoms of the disease.
This scenario is further exacerbated by the complex nature of the pandemic. There is currently no vaccine or cure for this global pandemic, with research continuing to reveal new dimensions of the pandemic.
In the absence of a cure, other relevant options must be pursued in order to assist in curbing the spread of the pandemic.
WHO has recommended various practices that are considered important in reducing the spread of COVID-19. These include social distancing, quarantining the infected, frequent washing and sanitising of hands, as well as disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, among others.
Notably, these practices require a shift from the usual social norms or usual way of doing things.
In an effort to do this, some of the practices are not realistic in some social settings, for instance, in the formal settlements where communities do not have decent accommodation, share toilet facilities with many people and lack access to running water .This is where health communication comes in.
As has been the case with HIV & AIDS, health communication has played a significant role in encouraging the adoption of protective health practices such as safe sexual practices.
Health communication must be at the centre of all preventive efforts against the rise of COVD-19, particularly in most African regions where the health systems are compromised.
Effective communication can help to change social norms, mobilize people towards expected behaviour in the context of COVID-19, and lead to lower infection rates.
However, for this to happen, effective health communication mechanism must be employed and this is communication that is deemed relevant to people in various contexts.
Health communication that is regarded as effective must be inclusive, involve people at grassroots level (community engagement) and thus be able to take cognisance of the various dimensions of people in their different socio-cultural contexts.
Inclusive communication is the direct opposite of a one size fits all approach, where communication is merely disseminated in a one-way format and content determined by certain people. Such communication tends to turn a blind eye to the realities of people on the ground, yet they are the most vulnerable.
This has been the trend in the African contexts where most of the communication is created by health agencies, with minimal community consultation, and simply disseminated to the populace, sometimes in languages that they do not even understand.
Only recently that information about COVID-19 started to be disseminated in indigenous languages to cater for the diverse communities.
The feasibility of inclusive health communication in emergency situations, such as the one presented by COVID-19, can be questioned by many.
However, it is one of the important ways of ensuring that correct and effective communication is shared with the public, particularly in an era of fake news, misinformation and disinformation.
Inclusive health communication could provide opportunities for communicators to understand prior knowledge and existing conceptions about a pandemic. This is critical in ensuring that designed communication addresses public concerns about the pandemic.
How does inclusive health communication look like? It stresses the importance of community engagement.
There are a number of things that happen when communities are involved; they take ownership of initiatives presented to them, relevance of the initiatives and messages communicated is increased and they can mobilise each other towards adopting recommended behaviours, because they feel that they are part of the objective to be achieved.
Community engagement will also support respect for local settings. In other words, context is taken into consideration and influences how messages are crafted and conveyed. This is very important in African contexts that are culturally diverse.
More so, it will help one understand the sphere of influence in communities. Influential people have the potential to mobilise people towards change, thus playing an important role as change agents.
Understanding local settings may also assist in selecting the appropriate terminology, as well as the use of simple and relevant language.
This will enhance the effect of communication. The idea is not just to translate messages, but to ensure that in the crafting of the messages, meaning is not lost in translation.
It is important to note that how messages are received and interpreted can influence the extent to which they are implemented in daily practice.
Identifying the communicative ecology of communities is another important aspect of inclusive health communication. This requires one to pay attention to the communication patterns and networks of individuals and communities.
Understanding and identifying the appropriate communication channels is important. It has been argued that the channel is as important as the message. Once a wrong channel is used, it limits one’s ability to effectively communicate.
This cannot be overemphasised, particularly in the African contexts where the digital divide still exists. Popularity of certain channels must not be equated to them being effective for communicating all kinds of information.
Therefore, it becomes important to understand who communicates, with whom, and which medium is used to access certain kinds of information.
Paying attention to the communication patterns and networks may go a long way in ensuring the success of health communication.
In a nutshell, the value of health communication in curbing the spread of a pandemic cannot be overemphasised. However what matters is the quality of the communication.
At a time when there is confusion due to misinformation, disinformation and fake news, it is important that community engagement takes priority.
It will present opportunities to debunk misconceptions about any disease and also create opportunities to allow messages to emanate from the community. This will increase the relevance and impact of such messages.
Health communication about COVID-19 must embrace the use of community leaders as change agents, employ a multi-pronged approach in terms of channels used for communication, use simple and relevant language, pay particular attention to the local contexts and circumstances as well understanding the communication patterns and networks of community members.