May 7, 2020

Why Effective Communication Is Fundamental To The Fight Against Covid 19 In Nigeria

The odds are that the world will defeat the Covid-19 pandemic in the end – prospects of an eventual vaccine are promising; and fatality rates, while devastating, have remained on the lower end of total population sizes. The question is how much of a toll Covid-19 will extract from humanity, before we eventually overcome it. Losses in human lives and economic capital across the globe so far are already monumental – and still on a rise in regions like Africa. The truth is that an extremely difficult road still lies ahead for mankind, in this time when, like never before in recent history, we all face this common, fatal threat. However, if we handle the situation and ourselves the right way, we will get to the end of that road sooner rather than later. It has already been seen, in places like Taiwan, that timely action is a far greater panacea than much else – by making simple, necessary adjustments to civil existence, sometimes merely weeks beforehand, a great number of lives have been saved. Infection-rates in other places have progressively declined, from concerted and sustained efforts between government and citizenry. The point is that, with no cure at hand, the world has so far fought this disease primarily with information – information about the physical mechanisms of spread so that we may act pre-emptively against it, and information about who has been infected and who is likely to have been, so that they may be separated from everyone else, for instance.

Countries that appear to be winning the fight are on this track because they have weaponized vital information – from administrative levels to groups, down to the single individual. Nevertheless, the information in and of itself is not enough – as a matter of fact, information in a time such as this could be dangerous even…the wrong sort, that is. For instance, the proliferation of misinformation during this pandemic, in what the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed an infodemic, has exacerbated the situation in different ways. What is ideal is for useful and accurate information to be relayed at the right time and in the right way, such that all of whom require it will receive and sufficiently comprehend it in order to act upon it, in the manner that is demanded. This is effective communication.

With rising numbers of infected across Africa, it would appear that the continent is losing the battle so far. The problem is not in the dearth or reach of information about the pandemic; a lot of what is happening is predicated on how, even when essential information is available, it is not communicated effectively enough. Take for instance the Nigerian conundrum – while aware of the pandemic, the vast majority of people are far more concerned about the difficult economic conditions they live in. Many Nigerians expressed opposition to the lockdowns imposed by the government to curb disease-spread, for the limitation to their livelihoods; and generally consider hunger a more present and daunting threat to themselves than the Coronavirus.

 When on May 4th, 2020, lockdown measures were eased in affected states, scenes of overly crowded public places where replete on the same day, setting the stage for an explosion of infections. The widespread and wanton disregard of a very dangerous situation in this case ultimately rests on a failure to communicate the severity of the imminent threat effectively to everyone concerned, by the parties that should. There are many Nigerians who have heard about the Coronavirus, but who just do not understand or fear it sufficiently enough to do what is required without coercion. There are even many Nigerians who, sadly, still believe the virus does not exist. Then again, there are those who are more engaged by conspiracy theories about its origin, and unfounded information about its cure, than in scientifically established methods for its prevention.

Short of coming to a time when fatalities from the disease abound, a time when we would be facing the worst possible scenario of the crisis, millions in Nigeria will not comprehend the situation well enough to play their part fully. For the ones who are better-informed, it is impossible to disregard the fact of any disease-related ignorance among the masses without consequence, because in the web of this pandemic, everyone is endangered by the wrong actions of everyone else. The man who has self-isolated for 5 weeks will still be infected when a nonchalant passer-by sneezes close to him while on his evening run; the essential worker observing every precaution in her duties will still be put in jeopardy by a throng of clients not wearing adequate protective clothing; and the unwitting, untested entrant will still introduce the virus into a community that has managed thus far to remain without it, by travelling there from somewhere else. For the collective good, it is cardinal that effective communication is deployed so that every person fully grasps our current, shared predicament; as well as their individual role in driving the solutions to it.

THE RIGHT KIND OF INFORMATION

Clearly, it is not enough to say to the average Nigerian, “There is a deadly Coronavirus pandemic afoot. Everyone ought to stay home, and practice social distancing when out”. In another environment perhaps, this is a strong enough warning to induce acquiescence. However, in this context, it is entirely possible that the trauma of daily existence for the very indigent majority requires a far graver tone of threat, in order for the gravity not to be drowned out. The same man for instance, who listens to the news on the radio in the morning about increased numbers of infected, and who subsequently converse about the same with his wife, will get on a crowded bus shortly afterward, without a facemask, and go to physically interact with numerous people at his work in a crowded marketplace. For him, his inability to provide for his family that day amidst their penury will kill them quicker than any virus could. While no one wants to create a panic or worsen an existing one, it is increasingly apparent that to spur Nigerians to the right action, it is necessary to cause them to be adequately concerned about their lives, and the lives of everyone around them. At this critical time, perhaps conversations should commence, on how to acceptably adapt public information on the pandemic to the more socially grim Nigerian context, so that the full extent of the danger is universally appreciated.

ENGAGE COMMUNITIES, TAILORING INFORMATION TO THEM

The majority of Nigerians live under the poverty line. As such, access to (and comprehension of the content of) conventional news media is often limited. Information around the novel Coronavirus should be tailored specifically to lower income groups, and delivered directly to their environments. Communication should be widespread and interactive, so that everyone receives every pertinent detail in equal measure, and is able to clarify their understanding of the situation. Many individuals and groups have in recent times shown admirable altruism in reaching out to the economically disadvantaged with food and other resources in this pandemic; information is just as vital, and these outreaches as well as the ones to come should prioritize enlightening the lower classes about the pandemic, in the most fitting ways.

EVERYONE IS INVOLVED

Similar to retrofitting automobile factories to produce ventilators in response to this crisis, the situation requires parties that hold platforms for communicating with meaningful population sizes to leverage this reach and disseminate appropriate information about the pandemic. In addition to traditional information media, thought and religious leaders, public personalities, social groups and other organisations would do well to interact with their audiences and convey the relevant information around the crisis, and do this in ways that guarantee that the recipients gain full insight. It helps to speak in local languages for instance or to enact the threat in relatable terms. For the individual citizen, it is critical to understand just how deleterious misinformation could be in this current panic-riddled atmosphere; and for this reason not to engage or disperse any unverified information. The task ahead can only be taken on with any success if we all act in concord.

In light of recent events and ongoing developments around the World, due the CoronaVirus pandemic, CSEA will continue to provide perspectives ,and policy options by contextualizing current trends and the probable impact of this crisis on Nigeria’s economy“.

This article was co-authored with OBI OBIWULU , Communications Consultant at CSEA.