Communications and communities are important to fight COVID-19
This statement by former Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma is not only a rallying point but is a reminder of the key lessons in combating emerging pandemics such as the one posed by COVID-19 that has completely redefined our lifestyles.
There is a general perception that West and Central Africa regions were ready for the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of preparedness.
In a virtual press conference that we organised this week the Regional Director of WHO Dr Matshidiso Moeti raised concern of the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in West and Central Africa.
She noted that the region accounts for 54% of all positive cases and 35% of deaths in the Africa WHO region.
This is of concern given the emergency responses that the region is pursuing such as the rapid mass testing, fully equipped field hospitals, contact tracing, disease surveillance and community level pandemics management approaches which seem to lend credence to this view of regional preparedness.
This observation has made many to wonder how the region appears to have been ready for a pandemic of such a magnitude as COVID-19 and yet it faces myriad other challenges, such as political upheavals, rise and spread of extremist groups, high levels of poverty and a severely constrained education and health system.
Boko Haram insurgency, rise of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and emergence of Islamic State cells in the region have all undermined development by leading to a deteriorating security situation, instigating mass migrations and causing major humanitarian and development crises in the Lake Chad Basin affecting 17 million people.
Coupled with these challenges that are overstretching the region’s health budgets and capacities of humanitarian agencies, are the sporadic dangerous disease outbreaks such as Malaria, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika Viruses and Buruli Ulcers.
Perhaps more than anything else, the perception that the region appears to have been ready for COVID-19 stems from our past misfortunes of dealing with perilous and contagious infectious outbreaks.
Our hard-to-forget experiences with Zika Virus, Buruli ulcers and more recently the Ebola Viral Disease epidemics in our backyard helped enrich our knowledge pool as we were forced to suffer deadly emerging viruses.
These sporadic and fatalistic outbreaks bolstered our resilience and capacity to adapt.
Secondly, once the novel Corona Virus emerged, we had ample time to ready ourselves recalling our experiences.
Given such an outlook, it is imperative that Africa builds on the lessons learned to ensure we respond more effectively to COVID-19.
In as much as the African continent may not be having strong health systems as compared to other regions in the world, it is clear we are leveraging on the continental experience of dealing with the Ebola Viral Disease and so far it seems that Africa is performing relatively well compared to others.
The idea is to stress the risks of having a disrupted health system with a rapid escalation trajectory of the pandemic given the speed of propagation of COVID-19, which makes it quite challenging even for the best health system to respond adequately to the needs of a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of patients.
Of priority to us as UNFPA has been the enhancement of public communications as a crisis management tool.
Just like all previous lethal syndromes, COVID-19 also comes with the greater public responsibility tagging alongside the social ill of stigma.
This is a lesson we learnt from the past as communities resisted attending health facilities for fear of contracting Ebola, lowering further the utilization of health services.
We are seeing the same pattern with COVID-19. Our concern as UNFPA was especially drawn to myriad cases among pregnant women who needed treatment or were about to deliver, posing a serious threat to maternal and neonatal health that resulted in increased morbidity and mortality.
Given the serious implications posed by COVID-19 to national economies and social political structures, strategic and well-timed mass communication messaging becomes an important ally of public health as it helps demystify the science, simplifies the medical language and curtails misconceptions while warding off humiliation.
At a time when governments are implementing tough public health measures such as social distancing, lockdowns and curfews it is vitally important that they help the public understand why certain measures are important through communications and remove the notion of shame.
All these interventions combined stratify general public consent and helps in bringing in local communities to the centre of emergency responses.
Our experience shows that when we reached out to communities with the right information we expunged all stigma associated with the diseases and aided in the halting of the spread of the Ebola Viral Disease.
Soon after COVID-19 broke out, we initiated the emergency communications protocols and upgraded them with the lessons learnt from Ebola to prepare the region even as medical personnel readied themselves to handle it.
Other continents can learn from Africa by borrowing the measures undertaken that changed the course of the Ebola pandemic after the introduction of community responses.
The nature of these crises borne out of pandemics is that it has highlighted the importance of coordinated multi-country, cross-border approaches to build an effective response.
It has also shown that in most instances you use what you have as a country and rely heavily on your respective communities.
It is in this light that public health communication needs to incorporate the communities at the grassroots, particularly those around borders, who are sometimes overlooked when designing and implementing mass outreach health campaigns.
Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office and Acting Chairperson of the Regional UN Sustainable Development Group. He oversees 23 countries in the region.