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By Phumla Willams

The unique challenges posed by COVID-19 has called on humanity to remain apart through social distancing.  This has caused untold anguish as people have been forced to adapt to a new way of life, which has now become our new normal.

Yet even in this period of extreme uncertainty, people have found new ways to maintain connections and communicate. We might be miles or even continents apart but through technology we can share our experiences, best practice and help each other through this turbulent period. 

Africans have always found ways to work together to find solutions for our continent and our people.  During the recently held Africa’s Webinar on Covid-19, South Africa’s communications endeavours, which took the form of a virtual engagement, communicators from the continent shared their experiences and knowledge on the collective fight against COVID-19.

What emerged is that while there are challenges, Africa has largely followed best practice in fighting this pandemic.  To a large extent there has not been the contestation about the wearing of masks, observing social distancing or washing hands that has characterised the debate around COVID-19 in other parts of the world.

Africans have made decisions based on solid scientific evidence, medical advice and the work of bodies such as the World Health Organisation.  The discussions at the webinar also showed that communication has played a vital role in educating, dealing with stigma, and reassuring people that their individual actions are key to stopping the spread of the virus.

What has been notable about the African response is that the African Union, in tandem with regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community have spearheaded efforts to fight the virus.

Speaker after speaker at the webinar spoke of the importance of a coordinated regional and continent wide response as a means to contain the spread of the COVID-19 and to mitigate its socio-economic impact on the continent.

Barbara Lopi the Head of Communications and Public Relations for SADC said that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, SADC has been in the forefront in coordinating the regional response to the pandemic, by putting in place measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 and to mitigate its socio-economic impact in the SADC region. She further stressed that regional measures were not taken in isolation, but instead complemented national actions and efforts undertaken by various Member States in response to the pandemic.

While Winston Mwale from AFRICABRIEF, an innovate digital news platform emphasised that the pandemic has unleashed a desire for content, and that publications such as AFRICABRIEF were essential in telling the African story through our own eyes. They have also been quick to use innovative ways to get their content across, and have used WhatsApp as a platform to reach their readers wherever they are.

One thing that the pandemic has done is to force nations, organisations and people to change their ideas about what can and cannot be done. It has driven innovation and new thinking and Africa has in many ways been at the forefront of this revolution.

Tshelp Ikaneng a journalist from the South African Broadcasting Corporation said that technology and its smart use has been a game changer in how we communicate and relay messages.  He emphasised that technology could be used to showcase African excellence, and that as Africans we had a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with the world.  

All the participants in the webinar agreed that the virus knows no boundaries, and that the  need for enhanced regional and continental efforts was essential.

What has however, been clear from the start is the vital role played by communication and communicators. Using a variety of platforms, communicators have ensured that the message of promoting solidarity, cooperation and harmonisation of procedures was adopted.

Once again the issue of ensuring that communication during COVID 19 was also aimed at facilitating information sharing among nations on the continent was emphasised, along with that of sharing of best practices and advisories, and recommendations.

What also became clear during the interactions is that the pandemic is constantly changing and so too are the problems and challenges associated with it. This resulted in nations and communicators continually having to adjust approaches to better suit the needs of their nations and her people.

It was also abundantly clear from the interactions that nations on the continent face similar experiences and challenges. A common theme which emerged is that it was incumbent on governments and by implication communicators to inform, educate and reassure citizens through this turbulent period.

Similarly, nations on the continent have found that communication and sharing knowledge has been an essential tool in their mitigating strategy to combat the spread of the virus.

It was truly wonderful to share these experiences with our friends and colleagues on the continent. These discussions have strengthened our resolve that we must continue to develop our own solutions to inspire and energise Africans. We also agreed that we would continue to assert a narrative of hope rather than hopelessness. The Africa I know is one of unlimited potential, and I am confident that the continent will rise to even greater heights and meet any challenge.

Ms Phumla Williams is the GCIS Director General and SA Cabinet Spokesperson

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