5 ways in which the UK media can improve its coverage of COVID-19 in Africa
Image: Heron Kayaga, a midwife at Mengo Hospital, Kampala District, Uganda, dressed in protective gear works in the labour ward. Photo by Esther Mbabazi for Amref Health Africa UK.
Written by Rachel Erskine and Janice Njoroge, Communications Managers with Amref Health Africa
Africa Bracing for a Head-On Collision with Coronavirus, The coronavirus could devastate poor countries, African Countries Fear They Are Defenceless Against Inevitable Spread of Coronavirus. These are just some of the headlines that have appeared since the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed on the African continent. As we write, the number of confirmed cases in Africa has just passed 1 million. Rates of testing vary dramatically from one country to the next, suggesting we may not be seeing the full picture – but the pandemic is evolving every day, and with each new development come fresh predictions of how hard the continent is likely to be hit. While this desire to paint the definitive picture – to tell what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “a single story” – is understandable, it’s not always helpful. With this in mind, here are five ways in which the UK can improve its coverage of the crisis.
1. Remember that Africa is not one country
There is huge variation in experience, both between and within countries, communities and cultures. National authorities in Africa have taken a range of different approaches, just as they have elsewhere. It would be hard to speak of one common European experience: just compare the UK’s response with that of Sweden or Germany. In the same way, there are very few parallels to be drawn between the experience of Senegal – which acted swiftly to close its borders, has opted for widespread testing, and is implementing lessons learned during the Ebola crisis of 2014 to 2016 – and that of Tanzania, whose response has been hard for both local and international media to evaluate. Focusing on continent-wide trends is certainly important: but drilling down to look at the lived experience of countries and communities is equally so, and will make for richer reporting.
2. Tell stories of “rational hope”
The doomsday scenarios laid out by some commentators overlook the many success stories coming out of the continent. While it’s important to remain clear-sighted about the sharp rise in cases – and the already-apparent secondary impacts of the pandemic – we can, in parallel, continue to shine a light on examples of regional cooperation, innovative partnerships, strong leadership, pioneering research, and community-led change. Among the experiences of 55 countries there are both lessons to be learned, and reasons to be hopeful.
3. Make the personal political
South African writer Sisonke Msimang warns that well-told stories can create an “illusion of solidarity” that stops us from taking action. When we read about an exceptional individual who has overcome their circumstances, our feelings about that person can blind us to the structural inequalities that have created those circumstances. This holds true for the hero narratives we’ve been seeing in the stories of frontline health workers, in Africa and around the world, putting themselves at risk to save lives.
Yes, it is inspiring to read about extraordinary people stepping up to shield their families and communities from the worst of the crisis. But let’s put those stories in context and let’s use them to galvanise our collective efforts to create meaningful, measurable, systemic change.
4. Continue to report from Africa in a nuanced way
This global crisis has highlighted our interconnectedness. It has thrown into sharp focus the importance of strong, resilient health systems staffed by trained (and paid and protected) health workers. It has exposed long-standing fault lines and deepened inequalities and its ripple effects will continue to be felt long after the crisis has peaked.
What happens in Africa matters everywhere: because we are a global community, meeting common challenges with shared solutions. As the world recovers and rebuilds, let’s retain the sense of solidarity that has powered efforts to fight the pandemic. Let’s ensure that Africa continues to make headlines and that the stories that get traction are complex and varied.
5. Elevate African expertise
Too often, African voices are excluded from conversations about COVID-19 on the continent – and this despite the ubiquity of digital platforms that allow us to transcend distance. There is no shortage of expertise in Africa. Organisations such as the Mo Ibrahim Foundation have drawn on the wealth of available data to present a clear and accurate picture of the COVID-19 context, highlighting where efforts can be concentrated in the management and mitigation of the pandemic. We have also seen the Global Partnership for Sustainable Data call on the members of its network to support each other with vital resources, produce and analyse quality data, implement good practices, and share experiences. Amref Health Africa has teamed up with Dalberg to run #AfricaDialogues, a fortnightly series of webinars bringing African expertise to a global audience.
Journalists and editors should use this opportunity to seek out new voices, to amplify “local talent”, and to build relationships that will outlast the crisis. INGOs have a responsibility too, to put forward in-country colleagues and to elevate their expertise.
Rachel Erskine and Janice Njoroge, are Communications Managers with Amref Health Africa UK and Kenya respectively. Together, they co-chair Amref’s Global Website and Social Media Working Group. This blog represents the views of the authors rather than those of the organisation they work for.