Synergised action to get through Covid-19 using available data

A patient is assisted as he takes off his protective suit to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Photo by: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The Covid-19 pandemic now has a firm grip on Africa. There are more than 415 000 cases and 10 000 deaths on the continent. And Africa’s worst affected country – South Africa –  is reeling with close to half of those infections and over 3000 deaths.

There is still no vaccine available and the only tool at the disposal of countries to contain the rapid spread of the disease remains public health and social measures such as lockdowns as well as hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks. Most countries have used these optimally and swiftly.

South Africa, where the most stringent lockdown regulations have included restrictions on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, has been riding the Covid-19 wave along with the AU Member States and this will continue to unfold over many months.

The projections are that South Africa will reach its peak in the next two months with the economic hub of Gauteng expected to record 300 000 cases. However, the situation remains fluid. 

It is therefore useful for governments across the continent to have some idea of the baseline conditions in their countries during the pandemic and understand how to use them to plan their next moves.

One helpful tool has been a survey released by the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to Covid-19. This is a consortium of global public health organisations including Africa Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, the World Health Organisation and the  World Economic Forum as well as private sector firms such as market research company Ipsos. 

The consortium’s survey, conducted in March and April in 28 cities across 20  of the AU Member States, collected social, economic, epidemiological, population movement and security data to help determine the acceptability, impact and effectiveness of public health and social measures for Covid-19. 

What they found was that two-thirds of people in the countries feared to go hungry if they had to quarantine for 2 weeks, while half of the survey’s respondents said they would run out of money if they had to stay home for 14 days. The lowest-income households expected to run out of food and money in less than a week.

In addition to this, the survey also measured some of the perceptions around the pandemic. It found that less than half the people interviewed believed they faced the risk of contracting the virus.  While they believed the pandemic was a national problem, there wasn’t a personal risk.  More than 60% believed Covid-19 could be prevented by drinking lemon or taking vitamin C. And just over 40% believed that Africans could not get Covid-19. 

The importance of these findings cannot be underestimated.  Making informed decisions and finding localised solutions to problems using available data is the only road to travel when faced with the Covid-19 health crisis. And here both governments and the media have an important role to play.

Based on the recommendations of the consortium, African countries must build public health capacity to test, trace, isolate, and treat cases—the necessary foundation for reopening society. 

They must also monitor data on how public health and social measures meet local Covid-19 conditions and needs, to determine when and how to lift them in a way that balances lives and livelihoods. 

They must engage communities to adopt these measures to the local context and effectively communicate about risk to sustain public support, achieve widespread adherence, and shield vulnerable populations. 

The consortium has been working with governments to mitigate unintended social and economic disruptions of interventions to address Covid-19. For example in South Africa, as the country moves closer to the eye of the storm there is talk of the government tightening its grip and enforcing more stringent lockdown regulations again to contain the spread of the virus. In this time it is important for the government to use this valuable resource provided by the consortium when making decisions.

The government needs to ensure that they can mitigate the serious economic concerns of citizens when they implement public health measures as they wage the war against Covid-19.

The media also needs to ensure that citizens remain informed about trends and developments nationally and on the continent. The burden remains on journalists to give the public information that is reliable while holding the government to account about its management of the pandemic and the challenges that come with it.

Ordinary Africans from the bustling streets of Lagos to the deserts of Namibia must also take ownership of their personal safety, armed of course with the right information and previous experiences of other Africans.

In countries on the continent where the freedom of the press is an on-going challenge, this will prove difficult. But the media must be resolute in providing balanced and factual reporting. It is important for them to remember four lenses when reporting on a pandemic: lives, livelihoods, liberties and the long term. 

At the current phase of the pandemic, the surveyed populations exhibit many similarities, both in terms of their general knowledge about the virus and their attitudes toward government responses. But as the numbers of people infected increases and governments respond differently, this may change, necessitating the use of data.

Covid-19 has thrown down the gauntlet to the government, media and ordinary citizens to rise collectively and weather the storm of this pandemic.

Terri-Liza Fortein is an independent media and communications specialist based in Cape Town South Africa.