South Africa has been under lockdown since 26 March; yet there are nightly street parties taking place, with revellers even chanting the name of the virus. These very same people are often crowded into informal housing where water and sanitation are scarce and other diseases – notably AIDS and tuberculosis – are already endemic.
Even so, government messages about coronavirus are not getting through.
If this is the case in South Africa – with its relatively strong institutions and swift central-government response – what is about to happen elsewhere?
READ MORE: South Africa in lockdown as Coronavirus cases spike
Looking across the continent
For Africa, coronavirus is a catastrophe in the making – and not just a healthcare crisis, but a threat to the cohesion and resilience of societies themselves. A recent long read in the Economist unpacked with great detail the democratic deficit and demographic divide facing the continent.
Young, upwardly-mobile populations – with increasingly high levels of smart-phone usage – are already facing off against older, entrenched elites. The result is weak social contracts and low trust, precisely at the moment when governments need to maximise cohesion and populations’ willingness to listen.
When mass casualties start to overwhelm already hard-pressed healthcare services – most African countries have severe shortages of ventilators and intensive-care beds – a new and equally deadly epidemic will take hold: fear.
Fear of coronavirus is almost as great a threat as the disease itself.
The Director General of The World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has talked of combating the “infodemic” alongside the pandemic.
Social media is already alight with speculation liable to drive public panic; while even the more ‘respectable’ newspaper websites are filled with sensationalist stories to drive traffic in an effort to mitigate their own uncertain future.
Strength of trust
The most powerful weapon in the fight against coronavirus is public trust.
Reinforcing this means getting ahead of the downward spiral of contagious fear and social breakdown with responsive communications programmes tailored to local conditions and highly-varied populations.
Early, accurate, and credible communication is key.
Yet, although delivering factual messages is a large part of the mix, it’s not the same thing as managing emotional responses. No one knows for sure how populations will react under extreme pressure, when anxiety and panic overtake rational thinking.
It is therefore essential to read the emotional landscape – and better understand people’s deeper motivational drivers – before designing public-information campaigns.
READ MORE: Coronavirus: Africa’s failure would be the world’s failure
To ascend this learning curve, African governments should urgently conduct rapid, large-scale behavioural research to answer the most fundamental questions:
Do people understand the virus – how it spreads, what the symptoms are, and how they can help slow its progress? Do they fear most for themselves or their families? If they don’t trust the government, who do they trust? Which sections of the population are most minded to help – and which least? What type of countermeasures will meet with popular support – and which won’t?
Public-health officials across Africa face a particularly delicate balancing act when it comes to the timing and enforcement of ‘lock-down’ measures.
South Africa, for example, is using armed force to restrict freedom of movement and enforce social distancing on a mass scale. Yet telling people who live in cramped, makeshift houses – with no access to running water or private toilet facilities – to stay at home itself poses the most extreme test of social cohesion.
Getting it wrong will lead not only to higher mortality but also to civil unrest – potentially tearing the social fabric for a generation. Some governments may fall; others could become irreversibly authoritarian. It’s hard to know which is the worse outcome.
READ MORE: Nairobi’s fight against Coronavirus gets violent
Fortunately, there is also a great deal that governments can do to ‘nudge’ people in the right direction – with a focus on reinforcing positive actions and counteracting destructive behaviours.
Lessons can be drawn from different communications campaigns across the globe: mass-media advertising, televised press conferences, social-media engagement, in-community outreach, digital ‘influencers’ and grass-roots ‘guerrilla’ marketing techniques.
Appealing to people’s better nature can be a powerful incentive.
In the UK, for example, the National Health Service filled its national quota for volunteers twice over within hours of launching its appeal. This surge of community spirit will surely leave a positive social imprint for years to come.
A pandemic response that seeks to leverage such positive reserves of national and local sentiment – mobilising populations behind government efforts rather than against them – is all the more important given what’s at stake in Africa.
The social and political impact of coronavirus will be the defining moment for a generation or more. Its memory will be deeply entwined with the level and type of government response.
Those which are positive and decisive – identifying with populations and tapping into the ties that bind communities and nations – will be the relative winners.
Those which wait for the wave to break, then layer additional hardship on their already-suffering people, will not be looked on as kindly – if they survive at all.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.
Also in this in Depth:
unique identityNigeria: Can today’s young artists live up to the masters of modern Nigerian art? The 1960s and 70s were an interesting time for Nigerian art. The artists who would become the vanguards of modern art in the country had just completed their studies and were brimming with creativity and enthusiasm. And within those years, they began to chart a new course for Nigerian (and African) art.
nail biterNigeria: Will Tinubu be sworn in on Monday? There is no doubt that Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State and current president-elect, is a master strategist and natural born winner who has almost always beaten the odds and wrestled his opponents to the ground, often with one hand tied behind his back.
unenlightenedSouth Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe: Blackouts to total darkness? To observers, it’s incomprehensible that countries with active perennial waterways – via Zambezi River – teeter on the verge of energy poverty.