Guest Column

OPINION | Covid-19: During a crisis, transparent, regular and clear communication is a responsibility

2020-03-23 14:49
A health professional holds a swab test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a drive through testing site outside the Lancet Laboratories facilities in Johannesburg. (Marco Longari, AFP)

A health professional holds a swab test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a drive through testing site outside the Lancet Laboratories facilities in Johannesburg. (Marco Longari, AFP)

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With every communication-related faux pas, the more anxious citizens become. News of new cases, and developments in general, should come from the government directly with a great use of digital platforms, writes Mabine Seabe.

The South African government has done a fine job in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which recorded its first case on local shores on 5 March 2020.

Despite the rapid response, there are certain missing elements, which were evident on day one of the response.

And if we are going to get through this period, and the government wants to remain the foremost trusted authority on the novel virus, its communication operations need to be tightened up and brought into the room where decisions are made and directives are issued.

The response to the first case in South Africa was in some ways as a result of a new-comer to the National Assembly, Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Health,  Siviwe Gwarube, who on 2 February 2020, wrote to the National Assembly Speaker to request a Debate of Public Importance.

The young Member of Parliament (MP) saw what was happening across the globe, and wanted the people of South Africa to hear from the government, "the readiness of the Department of Health to deal with this global pandemic", Ms Gwarube submitted.

Moments before South Africa’s National Assembly in Cape Town was to sit for one of its most significant debates, the Department of Health released a statement stating that an imported case of COVID-19 was detected in KwaZulu-Natal. 

At the time, the virus had spread to 81 countries and territories, at time of writing this on 20 March 2020, that number stood at 169 (it is at 402 cases as of Monday); showing the rapid spread of the virus, and the need for the response to be steps ahead of the virus’s ability to spread exponentially.

On the evening of the first case, while the Health Minister, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, was briefing the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa held an overlapping  media briefing in dramatic form on the Waterkloof Airforce Base tarmac. 

I want to bring into focus that the Health Minister and President held media briefings of equal public importance that overlapped.

Had there been proper preparation by the government and its communication machinery, this should have never happened, which raises key questions about government's strategic and crisis communication capabilities: why were the Ministry of Health and the Presidency not in sync at such an important moment?

Did the two offices know of the other’s briefing?

Why did the President and Minister not appear on the same platform from the get-go?

And what is being done to ensure that the communication operation runs as seamlessly as possible?

Events since "Patient 1" was identified suggest that the communication gaps have not been identified and/or filled so as to facilitate the easy flow of transparent, regular and clear communication by the national government.

One of the clearest indicators that government is still struggling with crafting a communication plan was on Sunday, 15 March 2020, when President Ramaphosa was scheduled to address the Republic at 5pm on the state interventions that would be activated in order to contain the spread of the virus or "flatten the curve".

It had been speculated by the agenda-setting Sunday papers that a swathe of measures would be announced.

Having seen what was happening around the world and the impact of strong state measures, South Africans set their alarm clocks to 5pm to hear from their leader that indeed Covid-19 is now an emergency, which we all have to take responsibility for.

This was President Ramaphosa's time to be a leader to all South Africans, regardless of who they put their "X" next to in 2019.

He almost squandered this moment.

An hour after being told that the Commander-in-Chief (many have described the global crisis and the response as being warlike) and the President would flash onto our screens, the briefing was moved to 6pm so that the President could consult "key stakeholders".

A sense of hope by South Africans quickly turned into frustration, once again closing a trust gap or deficit that exists between citizens and their government.

Questions were raised about President Ramaphosa's ability to lead during a time of crisis and manage time. 

Nonetheless, in their eternal patience and tolerance for tardy politicians, South Africans stayed glued to their TV and cellphone screens.

Then 6pm came and went, with the public mood going from frustration to anger, and journalist, Andisiwe Makinana, reminding us that President Ramaphosa stated in early 2018 that "[t]he African National Congress wants to spread a new culture of being on time ..."

This while government communicators fired off unhelpful tweets in response to the valid anger by South Africans at being left to marinate in their own anxiety and anger created by a government that is squandering their patience. 

At 7.38pm, South Africans let out a collective sigh of relief as President Ramaphosa was taken into their homes via TV, radio and social media to the words, "[m]y fellow South Africans", which have come to be synonymous with pivotal points in South Africa’s democracy.

The President (who up until that moment had only addressed the nation twice on Covid-19) announced a  national state of disaster.

In emphasising the nature of the crisis we are in, the President said: "Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such a severe situation."

With those words and the announcement, we had forgotten about the lost hours created by the delays, the country's first citizen did not just activate laws, and jump-started a nation into collective action. 

We were and are still scared but for the first time in a long time, we were in this together, and ready to do what needed to be done to see the back of this pandemic, because in the President’s words: "It is true that we are facing a grave emergency."

Again, we felt like our government was to be trusted, it had a plan, and held our interests as citizens sacred.

On Monday we woke up to a new world governed by the Disaster Management Act, and we were ready to act accordingly and work with the government to flatten the curve and adjust our behaviour as new information became available.

Then the wins of the last 24 hours were wiped out as the government failed to communicate a situational update for more than 24 hours, with the next update going out before midnight on Monday, 16 March 2020.

This information blackout gave space to wild conspiracies, panic and distrust.

Again,a week later on Sunday, 22 March 2020, the Union Buildings’ communicators created the impression that a big announcement would be made in the evening, only for Minister Jackson Mthembu and presidential communication chief, Khusela Diko, to state that no briefing will be held on Sunday.

This again, had the tempers and anxiety of South Africans flaring.

I make this criticism well-knowing that the high-level discussions and decisions of a body like the Covid-19 National Command Council are complex and more often than not take longer than anticipated.

Presidency communication officials should have known this.

With every communication-related faux pas, the more anxious citizens become. 

News of new cases, and developments in general, should come from the government directly with a great use of digital platforms.

That said, the media have done well in dispatching developments accurately and timeously.

Alas, government’s digital platforms are slow to disseminate information they have a responsibility to deliver as far and wide as possible.

Government websites are being poorly used to direct citizens to literature about the national disaster regulations and the centralised website; and social media accounts fail to give updates in real time.

To add to this, there is some mixed messaging coming from government leaders.

While the President issued a directive, unanimously supported by political parties in Parliament and government at all levels, the Art, Sports and Culture Ministry led by Nathi Mthethwa, has gone against the grain by endorsing an ill-advised move for Premier Soccer League (PSL) games to go ahead, albeit, to empty stadiums.

This move undermines the efforts, buy-in and sacrifices of the citizenry and the directive issued by the Union Buildings.

This stresses the need to centralise communication and stakeholder relations.

A key problem with the government's communication is that there are too many voices coming from the government, when the person leading all communication should be the person who occupies the West Wing of the Union Buildings - President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In many ways, the fight against Covid-19 will be won and lost by how communication is done, with the government setting the tone, and that starts with a plan, which is seemingly missing, a situation that will not be sustainable on the long and difficult road ahead of us.

Our government has done well in its communication response to this emergency but they can do even better, which will aid in saving more lives. 

The medical experts have said: "Test. Test. Test".

My small word to government is - Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

- Mabine Seabe is co-founder and director of Stratagem Consultants

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  zweli mkhize  |  pandemic  |  coronavirus  |  communication


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