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Covid-19, virtual ‘parte’ and effective public communication

Some lessons from around the world: The most successful global leaders in fighting coronavirus have communicated clearly, displayed empathy and always favoured science over politics – Christiane Amanpour, CNN chief international anchor

Health CS Mutahi Kagwe’s frustration with Kenyans went a notch higher last week. Things going a notch higher is a favourite phrase in Kenyan journalism. Giving the government’s daily briefing about coronavirus, Kagwe told the nation:

“People have been going to pubs and eateries, they order one sausage and two beers then anatoka hapo anaingia hoteli ingine anakula sausage ingine na beer zingine mbili… Kusema ukweli, what are we doing?”

Serious. But the hilarious memes that were created on social media out of this statement would certainly push Kagwe’s frustration a notch higher one more time.

The outbreak of coronavirus has brought public communication into sharp focus. As if unwittingly preparing for the pandemic, ICT CS Joe Mucheru last year appointed veteran journalist and media maverick David Makali to head a task force on public communication. It would be interesting to find out whether recommendations of the task force were implemented.

What has become clear, though, over the past two months since the pandemic was confirmed in Kenya is that, to put it mildly, there is plenty of room for improvement in public communication. One hopes media students and experts will research this case.

The health messaging has been on point from day one. But Afya House spin doctors do not seem to have been giving their boss the correct advice on the politics of coronavirus – how to deal with people.

Pointing out failures in public adherence to health guidelines is important. But complaining all the time, issuing threats or denying obvious facts is bad public communication at the time of a scary pandemic that threatens to wipe out humanity.

People’s lives have been turned upside down, from the inconvenience of wearing stuff on one’s face, washing hands regularly, braving the burning smell of sanitiser, a dusk-to-dawn curfew, to the loss of jobs and salary cuts.

People can’t go to church any more to get spiritual nourishment or to the pub to drown their sorrows. They can’t watch their favourite match or give their loved ones a befitting funeral.

Everyone is stressed by coronavirus. The fear of infection or being caught on the wrong side of the law has put everyone on edge. Marriages are collapsing. Social support systems have broken down.

Children are home from school and parents are strained. The government says cases of sexual abuse especially of children are on the rise.

The media is full of reports of police violence while enforcing health restrictions. But last week Inspector General of Police Hillary Mutyambai denied police were using excessive force, or “what you call brutality.”

By now the whole world knows Kenyans love their drink. And congregating. And telling endless stories. Now they can’t meet and drink and eat and talk and laugh and cry…

All this requires sensitivity in public communication, or what CNN’s Christiane Amanpour calls empathy.

Next time, Kagwe should propose virtual ‘parte’ instead of complaining. Virtual church services and office meetings are now the norm after all.

The Ugandan journalist Eric Mwine-Mugaju who lives in the UK last week described in depressing detail how he buried his father via Zoom in the southwest of the country.

How do you create a virtual ‘parte’? Call up friends and whoever else you want to participate – your favourite bar attendant, for instance, who in all likelihood is jobless. Everyone buys their drink and whatever else they need: sausages, kichwa, tumbukiza, boiled hooves, etcetera.

Everyone stays at home. Set them up on Zoom or Skype. Voila! You have a virtual ‘parte’. Anyone can buy a round via money transfer service or home delivery.

As the government insists, Kenya is not out of the woods yet. Things are not normal. But people need empathy and practical help, not endless bashing.

Commenting on Covid-19 in the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs writes:

“The legitimacy of the government and the degree of trust the population has in its leadership are key to effectively combating Covid-19 and coping with its consequential losses. These factors will determine whether a country can enforce life-saving measures or whether social unrest breaks out.”

Effective public communication is absolutely necessary in building citizen trust in government in this difficult period.

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