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Government Communications During Covid-19: Responsibility to Ease Our Fears

During times of crisis, we look to our leaders to communicate effectively, in order to calm our fears. As such, it is important that each Gambian citizen gets to not only hear and be educated about Coronavirus / Covid-19, but that they get the correct information that can save their lives and avoid panic and fear. Taiwan, for instance, has won widespread recognition for its impressive performance in dealing with the crisis. Relying on a combination of preparedness, technology (big data), and transparencyTaiwan has managed to limit the number of reported cases so far to under 195 as of March 23rd; far fewer than in neighboring countries like China with over 80,000 cases. The openness of a government’s execution of its communications is instrumental in maintaining public confidence in its leader. Along with calming fears, an effective communication strategy can also go a long way in dispelling rumors and myths — which in the era of ‘fake news’ with people consuming news from fast-changing diverse platforms, is extremely important. Across the globe, citizens are all looking up to their leaders to guide them through these uncertain times.

President Barrow and his Cabinet

Rising to the task

The COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate leadership test for world leaders. This nightmarish crisis will separate the Churchills from the Hitlers. As we roll deeper into the crisis, it would be unfair to solely blame our President for all the COVID-19 related issues Gambians are currently experiencing. The current pandemic has proven to be challenging for leaders worldwide with many countries struggling to contain the spread of the virus on the one hand and inform its citizens on the other.  It is also undeniable that many governments are indeed struggling with their crises communications and management, highlighting many visible lapses — be it in the UK, USA, Senegal, Nigeria, China and The Gambia. COVID-19 has indeed done the world over. Leaders are being blamed for not closing borders on time, for not calling for a total lock-down, and for not providing adequate healthcare equipment.

Though many of those in leadership have not faced a challenge this daunting in their careers, the decisions they make and the way they communicate with their citizens will have far reaching consequences. While enforcing swift actions such as lock-downs and border closures are necessary, it is also the responsibility of leaders to communicate with the public in a timely and effective manner, in order to be transparent and to soothe the many anxieties people have.

Simple as ABC
It is not really so hard; just say what you know when you know it in a very clear and honest manner. In times of crises, we expect our governments to act in ways that are fast, synchronized, effective and authoritative. In the case of The Gambia, The Ministry of Health with the support of the Medical Research Council (MRC) has indeed been informing us of the cases of COVID-19 in a decent manner (we can only trust it is), but unfortunately, their message is unsynchronized, ineffective and unauthoritative.

Though the Ministry of Health has been using a combination of press releases shared on social media platforms and live broadcasts on the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) to update the public on the COVID-19 cases, these efforts are often unsynchronized and delayed, giving room for disastrous leaked speeches and rumors to circulate. This was evident when the President gave an address on the COVID-19 outbreak declaring that there were unconfirmed cases in The Gambia, which was shortly countered by the health minister less than two hours later with the announcement of the first case.

Instances such as these lead to distrust in leadership and only heightens public fear. Messages need to be timely and developed succinctly, encompassing expertise from multiple angles in order to be up-to-date and relevant. Information should also be disseminated in a variety of local languages through diverse mediums reaching the populace through the length and breadth of the country. Above all, people need to be able to look up to a person or team during a crisis. In the case of The Gambia, we have a cacophony of messages by different offices offering more confusion than clarity.

 

Moving forward
It is important that information is sent out early, clearly and regularly to citizens throughout this crisis. Even if Gambians are still trying to understand the extent of the pandemic, government needs to be honest to maintain credibility. The second COVID-19 case with the victim dying a day or two before the public found out is also quite troubling. As soon as he was a suspect case, the public should have been informed. A day late with this highly infectious virus is a public health disaster. This mistrust in government was further flamed by the quarantine fiasco at the Golden Beach Hotel. People are now more fearful knowing that some people bound for quarantine absconded, putting the public at risk.

Leaders need to be seen often in these troubled times. President Barrow should speak to the nation at least once a week. He does not need to go the President Trump route with his daily briefings, which has turned into a show piece. President Barrow’s weekly briefings will reassure the nation and give more weight to the gravity of this pandemic. There are many urgent rippling effects to this crisis such as the economic impact, education shutdown and security fragility of our state that needs to be addressed by our Head of State.

Due to the virus’ rapid spread, Government should look at ways of regaining our faith by utilizing some of the dissemination mediums and tactics below since person-to-person contact should be limited, in line with social distancing protocols:

  • Public service announcements on traditional media such as, radio, the print media and television;
  • Utilizing personality influencers in the arts industry in particular;
  • Engaging the diaspora to educate their families back home on the importance of social distancing;
  • Engaging telecommunication operators to send government approved push messages through SMS and automated calls in local languages;
  • Daily press briefings by the COVID-19 taskforce.

It is also standard operating practice in health emergencies, when experts have more public credibility and authority than politicians, to have them as part of the press lineup. It is great having the Minister update us daily but due to the increase of cases, the seriousness of the issue cannot be ignored. It is important to have the crucial medical and even security experts next to him during his daily press briefing in order to provide clarity on certain topics. So far what we have is a disjointed lineup which further leads to unsynchronized messaging. This crisis is cross-cutting and as such the team of experts need to be present to address concerns with holistic solutions. It is key to keep the briefings clear and transparent and to no more than 45 minutes with each expert answering about two to three questions. The briefings should be moderated by the health ministry’s director of health. Briefings should also be in parallel with appealing digital content for ease of dissemination.

As this pandemic evolves and hits countries across the globe, it is imperative that we can rely on our leaders to soothe our fears and anxieties by rising up to the task. These are times when leaders need to take swift action and, in many cases, make tough decisions that will have far reaching consequences.

Timely, clear, synchronized, effective and authoritative messaging can aid in this regard; which is why it is crucial for governments to devise smart communication strategies. Disseminating information on a frequent basis through mediums that promote social distancing, conducting press briefings with representatives to share expertise, and detailing the parameters around enforcement to minimize obscurity will ease citizen fear during this pandemic.

Gambians deserve to be informed about this fast-evolving pandemic in a way that proves to them that their government is sympathetic to their fears and is taking active steps toward addressing their dire concerns.

 

By Khadijah Aja Tambajang and Ya Awa Kaira

Khadijah is the founder / lead consultant of MMC and Ya Awa is a former project coordinator at MMC.

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