By Julius Spencer
First of all, let me commend the government for the proactive steps taken to protect us all from the ravages of the SARS Cov 2 virus. We see how it is ravaging Europe and North America and hope and pray the same does not happen in Sierra Leone or in Africa in general.
Having said that, however, I must express my concern over what seems to be a lack of coordination in information dissemination related to the battle against the disease.
I believe a communication strategy for COVID-19 has been developed. Unfortunately, it seems the prescriptions of the strategy are not being fully implemented and this is partly responsible for the seeming lack of coordination that was made very glaring last Thursday when within a few hours, two press releases were issued.
The clear impression I got from this was that the first release which initially got into the public domain unsigned, was either mistakenly released or deliberately leaked. This release was later signed and apparently officially released from State House. Just as the public was digesting the contents of the release, a second release was issued, this time signed by the Deputy Minister of Information. Although similar to the first one, this second release had a few other regulations and my impression is that the second release was the one that had been fully agreed by all the concerned parties.
In my view, this seeming lack of coordination does not augur well for the fight against the corona virus. It undermines trust and does not engender confidence in the public that the government knows what it is doing. I hope this will not be a recurring feature going forward.
There is need for the establishment of a Communications Committee that will serve as a clearing house for all communication related to the national response. I hope this committee will be established soon and will take control of the communications. The composition of this committee should be agreed between State House, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Information and the Emergency Response Centre.
It is widely accepted that in a disease epidemic or pandemic, effective communication is key to controlling the spread of the disease. The Ebola epidemic taught us that this is true. I believe effective communication is even more critical with this pandemic because it is much more infectious than Ebola. Although its mortality rate is significantly lower than Ebola, the SARS Cov-2 virus could end up causing many more deaths than Ebola did in Sierra Leone if we are not careful. Just think about it. If 10% of the population becomes infected, and 2% of those infected die, that will amount to about 14,000 deaths, more than 3 times that caused by Ebola. Ebola taught us that it is effective communication and social mobilization that will limit the spread of the disease, so I urge government to invest time and resources heavily in this area.
I also urge government to increase the frequency of its press briefings. By now we should be having daily press briefings. The reason for this is because there is great anxiety among members of the public which is being fuelled by the huge amount of fake news and misinformation circulating around the globe. Daily press briefings will not only provide an authentic source of information for the public, but will also provide an opportunity for quick debunking of fake news. If the public knows that the government is going to be providing accurate information every day, people will soon get used to waiting for information from these briefings.
The President has been addressing press briefings periodically, and so far, he has been doing quite a good job. I must commend him for his ability to present the situation and also effectively field questions. He is showing real leadership and reminds me of the Late General Maxwell Khobe. He, like General Khobe, is leading his troops from the front and I believe everyone will agree with me that he has been quite impressive. It may therefore be necessary for him to address the press periodically, perhaps once a week.
It may however be too taxing for the President to address a daily press briefing with all the other tasks he has to perform. Unlike another current president who will remain nameless, I am sure he is not interested in hosting a comedy show. There is therefore urgent need for the designation of a national spokesperson on COVID-19. That person needs to have significant experience of dealing with the media and while not expected to be a medical expert, should be able to quickly grasp the medical concepts and issues and articulate them in a way that will be understandable for ordinary people. The President could then continue addressing press briefings, but perhaps once a week, while the National Spokesperson does the daily briefings.
I also believe the spokesperson should be a member of the National Mobilisation Task Force/committee under the COVID-19 Operations Centre, perhaps as chair or co-chair. That way, the spokesperson will be fully integrated into the national response in all its facets and the national communication response will be more effectively coordinated.
Finally, I would urge that attendance at press briefings be restricted to journalists/ representatives of established media institutions, both local and international. Other civil society organisations have no business being in press briefings. A press briefing is not a town hall meeting or a seminar. It is meant to provide an opportunity for duty bearers to provide information to the media which has the responsibility to pass it on to the public.
In these days of social distancing when the number of people in these press briefings have to be significantly reduced, it’s unfair and unproductive for non-media practitioners to take up some of the limited spaces and also reduce the number of questions journalists can ask. Efforts should also be stepped up to transition to a more virtual space for these press briefings. There are a number of apps that are quite effective, such as Zoom, which can easily be set up so journalists can participate remotely. This will even broaden the participation because journalists outside Freetown and even international networks will be able to participate. Physical presence in the space for the press briefing can then be limited to just the officials and the TV crews.
I am sure between NATCOM and the telecommunication companies, such a system can be easily set up.