By Francis Nwosu
When the earliest Coronavirus (COVID-19) case was detected on November 17, 2019, in Hubei Province, Wuhan, China, little did the world know that it would be declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This was after Chinese authorities had tried to cover it up by muzzling the country’s scientific community that had warned of the virus’ deadliness.
In Nigeria, hearts were in mouths as the Federal Ministry of Health announced Nigeria’s index case on February 27, 2020. He was an Italian that flew in from Milan for a business meeting. Since then, the number of confirmed Nigerian infections has risen to 442 as of April 16. There have been 152 recoveries and 13 deaths.
Like some citizens and residents in the West, several Nigerians were also sceptical about the disease. They dismissed it as a hoax, but events have proved otherwise. Sadly, the initial scepticism has proved to be a massive drawback to government’s effort to combat the virus early.
Of course, pandemics have precedence in human history. There was the Flu pandemic of 1889 to 1890 that killed 1 million people; Spanish Flu (1918-1920), and Asian Flu (1957-1958) that had about 500 million cases with one-fifth of those killed. The H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic recorded 1.4 billion cases and killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people.
Ironically, the trajectory of such pandemics and epidemics, including Ebola is that they have a similar path in Nigeria. The first case was in Lagos, then Ogun and Ibadan before it spread to other Nigerian communities and states.
Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our tardy response to emergencies. It has similarly exposed our grossly inadequate health, humanitarian, security, educational, labour, governance and fiscal arrangements. These gaps require that more proactive and urgent actions need to be taken to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
Apart from scaling up the medical intervention, strategic communications and reputation management experts are needed at this point in time to reassure citizens and get their backing for government efforts to defeat the disease.
People need to be well informed of the various measures to break the virus’ transmission cycle, including physical/social distancing, restriction of movement, and the necessity of maintaining thorough personal hygiene.
They need to be educated about why they need to comply with these directives, and understand the weightier benefit of staying at home instead of hopping about ‘for their daily livelihood.’
Strategic public relations actions leveraging community influencers and local dialects should be deployed by state and local governments for community engagement with the people at the grassroots.
Using relatable cultural communication at a time like this will foster people’s awareness of the pandemic and the systems authorities are putting in place to mitigate further spread.
Despite government efforts to curb COVID-19, as well as donations of cash, relief materials and volunteer service from well-meaning Nigerians and institutions, the challenges of stopping this disease are enormous.
Thus far, these efforts seem like a drop in the ocean. And this is not to discredit these interventions but, anecdotal evidence nationwide show negligence and partisanship in the distribution of relief materials. Trust gap is also widening.
So, the onus, now, is on government to swiftly onboard relevant professional bodies to drive strategic communications, behavioural change and strong advocacy to deepen the current response to COVID-19 in a more seamless and coordinated manner.
Engagement of PR consultants will go a long way to drive tactful messaging content that will appeal to targets and help to manage their expectations. Experts in marketing communication and information management, more than ever, need to be drawn in to help up the ante. They should become the advisory ombudsman amongst various interest groups and institutions to strengthen collaborations that will accelerate the efforts to defeat Coronavirus.
With effective communication and enlightenment, the public will become more enlightened about COVID-19. All the nonsensical myths that the virus cannot survive in a hot region or is a conspiracy of the West to use 5G technology to destroy the world will stop.
The deployment of well-articulated and strategic communications will ensure effective risk mitigation communication, control of misinformation and eradication of ignorance. It will also reveal the antics of mischief peddlers masking as community voices in their circle of influence.
The importance of strategic communications notably PR, cannot be exhausted in just one breathe. The time is now to drive an articulate messaging on relief efforts by government agencies. It will additionally ensure that people are knowledgeable about all the issues about management of the challenges posed by the virus.
As the whole world strengthens commitments to end Coronavirus so it does not ruin humankind, Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind with tardy communication and poor planning.
Nwosu is an Associate Analyst, Content and Creative, with Chain Reactions Nigeria, the Exclusive Nigerian Affiliate and West African Partner to Edelman. Edelman is the world’s largest communications firm with presence in over 65 countries across the globe.