Defend Truth


Tailored messaging is key in curbing the spread of Covid-19 and misinformation


Oliver Meth is Communications Lead for the South African National Aids Council Civil Society Forum and Community Constituency Covid-19 Front.

We are in an epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories, and the only way to fight this is by being steadfast in providing the right information, educating people and promoting social behaviour change to ensure we stop the spread of the virus.

There’s a shack settlement about 2 kilometres from my Johannesburg apartment that I have always been curious about. So, this weekend, I took a walk into the area inhabited by slum to get an understanding of how such communities perceive Covid-19 and how the government can adapt responses in order to address the context-specific challenges they face.

I befriended a young lady, Nompilo, who lives in a shack built with boards and corrugated iron sheets. The area has communal toilets, no running water, and the structures are built 1 metre apart from each other and are poorly ventilated with small windows.

Within each shack, there is hardly any room to relax, only to sleep. Most times, people choose to eat outside their shacks. The scorching sun heats the iron structure, making it unbearable to stay indoors. Living in dire social and economic conditions makes it difficult to observe the prescribed measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. This poses a great challenge to attempts to curb the spread of the virus.

As my time spent with Nompilo and the many around her progressed, I thought of the elitist approach that the government has imposed on them, my sense of privilege in being afforded the space to observe social distancing, access to water and proper sanitation.

With just over 1 million cumulative cases recorded in South Africa, Covid-19 is the least of concern for Nompilo and her neighbours, as they would later tell me.

The use of “imbiza”, a traditional herbal medicinal drink, prevents them from contracting the virus, they say. Many of them have theories of the origin of the virus, skin colour and class setting. None that they deem to fit into.

I tried to reason in my very poor use of isiZulu. I didn’t have the answers. I felt useless, yet sympathetic. And as I looked around in observation and listened to the small talk, I departmentalised the situation into “social” and “structural” barriers to Covid-19. 

As a communications specialist working on behaviour change messaging, my alarm bell rang. The government needs to step up its communication efforts to fight against Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theorists.

Every major news event comes drenched in rumours and propaganda. But Covid-19 is the perfect storm for the diffusion of false rumour and fake news. It is getting harder and harder to distinguish the news from the noise.

And as many African countries, under the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO), work to develop their National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP) to ensure country readiness for the vaccine rollouts, it is crucial that we start engaging with communities, in preparation for the anticipated jab.

Like with any pandemic, there are “superspreader” moments. Nothing creates more fear, panic and a sense of irresponsibility than people who are uninformed. A realistic community engagement plan and mobilisation strategy needs to come into effect urgently and this is why the government, together with various civil society formations, must work rapidly to overturn the tide of misinformation on Covid-19 that is spreading. The Ministerial Advisory Committee must do more than just project graphs.

People are spending more time at home, and searching for answers to an uncertain and rapidly changing situation. And as one sees in Nompilo’s community, the topic is polarising, scary, captivating. And it’s really easy for everyone to get information that is consistent with their system of belief. The WHO has called the situation an infodemic. An overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — rendering it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance.

And as we head towards the 2021 local government elections, there’s no doubt that we will see a shift in the pandemic and false information increasing, with a sizeable part of the problem being political. We already see this trend on Twitter, where political players are driving parallel information campaigns, conveying the overall message that the ruling party is failing and cannot be trusted to strengthen our healthcare systems. Messages like these are sowing their own political chaos.

Understanding how Covid-19 disinformation spreads is essential for crafting an effective response to inform social behaviour change. And as the virus is rapidly changing, so should our behaviours.

This is why the government must fill this void with trustworthy information and ensure the local government is at the centre of the response. They need to be able to communicate with the right people, at the right time, using the right message and the right channels. They need to understand who they’re speaking to, with tailored messages most relevant to the community, whether they’re talking to a neighbourhood facing serious threats or a low-risk district in need of reassurance and prevention. They need to adjust messages for the moment.

As civil society, since the outbreak, we have been working to educate, inform and mobilise communities to screen and get tested in order to curb the spread of the virus. And as time goes on, there may be additional useful and specific information about prevention and response.

And as the second wave hits hard, we have taken up the call for humanitarian response and behaviour change #ThinkTwiceAboutCovid, working across sectors to reach as many people, as far and wide and some with limited access to mediums, to deepen conversations and create awareness.

We currently have #CommunitiesMatter mobilisers out in district areas, surveying and educating residents during the festive season. It is important for us to hear from communities. What are the things that are stopping them from adhering to prescribed regulations? How do we practise these social norms? And how can we assist?

This three-pronged multisectoral social behaviour change campaign implements advocacy, social mobilisation, community engagement, communications and public awareness aspects of the Community-Based Measures Strategy for Covid-19, using palatable linguistics to capture online engagement, educate and promote behaviour change in curbing the spread of the virus.

We debunk several cases of misinformation around Covid-19 vaccines, the HIV and TB linkages to the virus, including claims that the jab contains “little computers”, or that it will kill or permanently injure hundreds of thousands of people.

We are in an epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories, and the only way to fight this is by being steadfast in providing the right information, educating people and promoting social behaviour change to ensure we stop the spread of the virus. Social assistance, housing and infrastructure development must accompany adequate public health services for effective change and curbing the spread, especially among vulnerable populations. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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