The lifting in April this year of the national state of emergency that was declared in March 2020 under the Disaster Management Act 2002 to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has brought much-needed socio-economic relief to South Africa.

The recent announcement by Health Minister Dr. Joe Faahla that the Department of Health will no longer publish daily statistics on COVID-19 was another milestone. These statistics used to provide a transparent and necessary picture of the rise in daily infections and deaths in the country.

It is an indisputable fact that the last two years have been a period of uncharted territory in our country since the advent of our democracy. With limited knowledge of the deadly virus, which the World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic, most countries, including South Africa, have had to resort to drastic measures. These include a risk-adjusted level of restrictions and a tighter national lockdown that has brought almost everything in the country to a virtual standstill.

The country began to grapple with cases of COVID-19 when it had to repatriate South African students who had been studying in the city of Wuhan, China, where the highest number of cases of COVID-19 have been reported. Following this, in March 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the country.

The government’s swift response is likely to have seen South Africa weather the storm two years after the virus hit the country. I hasten to point out that although it was possible to weaken COVID-19, it was not completely eliminated in the country and in the world. The virus is still virulent and needs to be monitored closely and dealt with appropriately.

One can only look back with pride and gratitude at the science-based measures taken by the government led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the main objective of which is to save lives and livelihoods. Daily new infections at the time led many skeptics to question our ability as a country to respond adequately, but we never failed.

The National Coronavirus Response Command Council (NCCC), chaired by the President, has recognized that in addition to scientists advising and leading the nation’s response to COVID-19, we also need strong communication and grassroots mobilization. This work stream was expected to report weekly to the technical National Joint Operational Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) and ultimately to the NCCC.

The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) was tasked with managing this line of work. This task was made possible by the GCIS Communications Partnership established to manage this work. Partners included businesses, labor organizations, civil society organizations, traditional leaders, churches and our media partners.

The key nerve center for the content of all this depended on the Department of Health, with its scientists and scientific support, which guided how to package the messages.

This included using various products and platforms to communicate, among other things, preventive health measures such as wearing a mask, washing hands regularly with soap or using 70% alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and social distancing.

In its budget allocated to this campaign, GCIS has allocated some funds for research and in some cases partnered with the Solidarity Fund for this research. The results of these findings provided guidance on what platforms to use and how to package content in an attractive way to make it accessible to our target audience.

Because COVID-19 was an unprecedented phenomenon, the government had to use a subtle approach in some cases, as well as to deal with fake news that spread on social media and caused untold panic in South Africa.

Research results have enabled the government to understand the social and public health implications of the pandemic in order to respond to the public’s informational needs. Our scientists and practitioners have provided useful guidance on how to deliver impactful messages to the public.

This week we received the final report of a study done by Ask Africa, a Pretoria-based research firm. Without detailing the report, which was presented at the GCIS Webinar on the results of the Closeout research, the key findings of this study support the impact of communication and mass mobilization on the citizen response to COVID-19.

It also confirms that citizens have received information that has enabled them to take responsibility in fighting the onslaught of COVID-19. At the same time, it said that nearly three-quarters of respondents viewed the government positively in its handling of the pandemic and the vaccination program, as well as the delivery of welfare packages.

This positive response is also explained by effective government communication on the pandemic and the free vaccination program.

When examining the government’s message about COVID-19, the results show that more than 90% of respondents recalled messages about protecting themselves from COVID-19 through social distancing, isolation, and staying safe, among other things. Wearing a mask (84%) and using hand sanitizer (72%) was the GCIS message to all people in South Africa, which sought to minimize the spread of new infections.

While emphasizing the importance of vaccination to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and even death, we also had to outline the voluntary aspect of this campaign. Research results show that awareness of the vaccination program has improved from 55% in 2021 to 87% in 2022.

Public perception of the government’s role in vaccine use increased from 66% in 2021 to 85% in 2022. This is due to the government providing enough vaccines and making them readily available to anyone who wants to get vaccinated.

Given that vaccination was a necessary but voluntary option, we understand that even those who chose not to vaccinate did so not because of a lack of knowledge or awareness of the vaccination program, but out of their own free will.

The research supports the NCCC’s decision under President Ramaphosa that all South Africans need to be involved in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. This partnership with communities has undoubtedly allowed us to achieve what we set out to achieve, to provide communities with information to guide their decisions.

Meanwhile, the resulting study not only guided GCIS on how to proceed with a traditional approach to reach all citizens, but also provided the department with valuable guidance on how to improve its communications post-COVID-19.

*Phumla Williams is the CEO of the Government Communications and Information System.

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