Solly Moeng: Africa must work twice as hard at calming coronavirus panic. Here's why

Solly Moeng
Solly Moeng

It is often said that irrespective of how well they're qualified or experienced, black people always have to work twice as hard to prove their worth, to demonstrate that they can do the job at hand; and that, unlike their white counterparts, they measure up to the quality of the job they're still to deliver on.

This seems to be the case with 'place brands', too. Collectively, Africa must work harder to demonstrate to the world that it will not be annihilated by Covid-19, as some people have already predicted.

Individually, African states have their work cut out for them. It doesn't matter that the USA, Italy and Iran have the largest numbers of coronavirus casualties outside the Chinese epicentre of Wuhan, and Africa only a handful. For many, Africa remains the biggest test case to keep an eye on. It's up to African states, individually and collectively, to call the bluff of afro-pessimists out there on this and other challenges.  

Yet earlier this week, amid broader economic ructions, Bloomberg reported that according to Fitch, the spread of the coronavirus and tumbling oil prices could trigger a capital exodus from Africa, where governments have few tools available to battle external shocks. Bloomberg's own economists estimated that despite the fact that Africa had – at the time of writing on Tuesday afternoon – fewer than 20 confirmed cases across the continent and South Africa had just seven, foreign investors had already sold a net R20 billion of South African government bonds this month. [Update: There are, as of Friday, 24 confirmed cases in SA. - Ed]

Don't panic – but there's a panic epidemic

The global catchphrase around the Covid-19 pandemic is "Do not panic". It has been repeated by political leaders from Beijing to Washington DC; from Paris to Tel Aviv; from Tehran to Cairo, to Pretoria, Abuja, Geneva, Rome, Paris, and increasing numbers of other world capitals.

Some leaders, like in South Africa, have been relatively consistent in their messaging, coordinated, transparent and calm; while others, like in the USA, have been sending conflicting messages laced with personal political agendas in an election year, seemingly not sure whether to let in cruise liners waiting to arrive at the ports or to quarantine their passengers out there, in the high seas. There have also been disagreements about the numbers of available tests, about who should be tested and who should be allowed priority for access to limited quantities of face marks.

Here in South Africa, as the number of coronavirus compromised people grows – no deaths yet – government will be judged not only by what it says, how it says it, and the efficacy of its coordination with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.  

So far, the South African government has done a good job, giving no indication of hiding information, apart from the identities of the compromised people. This is probably done for ethical reasons and should be taken at face value.

What remains at stake is South Africa's brand image. Will it emerge from out of this episode a winner or another as just African state that had been thrown into the deep end? Cameras are still rolling on this one.

It is important that, mindful of possible negative reputational ramifications, the South African government keeps doing what it has been doing up to now and more, as the situation evolves. Mindful that the coronavirus is a global pandemic that began elsewhere in the world, and in which we, like dozens of other countries, got caught because we're part of the global community of nations, the South African government must:

  • Keep informing the public of all developments with as much transparency as necessary and possible;
  • Keep providing guidance on recommended preventative measures/ conduct on the part of members of the public;
  • Have an effective media monitoring team/regime in place to track conversations and push back against any possible false/misleading narratives, without appearing to hide anything;
  • Be clear in dealing with rumours about institutional conflicts or refusals by some to play their part;
  • Assist or collaborate with other states in Africa and beyond in dealing with the growing pandemic.

While we're not in this alone, we are alone when it comes to how we deal with the growing pandemic and will be judged by some as another African state that would either have confirmed the predictions of pessimists or proven them wrong.

We still have what it takes to lead from the front while we work with others, around the world, in finding lasting solutions to the challenges brought about by Covid-19.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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