Need and greed: Reporting on COVID-19 in Southern Africa - Journalism Courses by Knight Center

December 22, 2021

Need and greed: Reporting on COVID-19 in Southern Africa

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Mandi Smallhorne
Mandi Smallhorne is a freelance science journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is President of the South African Science Journalists Association.

This special briefing is also available in French, Portuguese and Spanish.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Mia Malan, executive director and editor-in-chief at the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in Johannesburg, South Africa, says: “If you want to report on COVID-19 in a meaningful way, it’s not good enough to just understand the science.”

In a country where the vast majority of people are poor and disadvantaged, you need “an ability to combine science with policy and an understanding of social injustice,” she adds. As an independent, donor-funded media organisation focused on health and social justice issues across Africa, Bhekisisa has played a critical role in reporting on the pandemic from the outset.

Covering COVID-19 in the Global SouthCOVID-19 arrived in southern Africa in early March 2020, yet another pandemic following on the heels of tuberculosis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the epidemic on which health journalists like Malan, living in HIV’s epicentre, had cut their teeth in the late 90s and early 2000s.

HIV taught us the importance of providing the socioeconomic and political context in which a disease happens. It is not just about reporting the research or understanding the drugs, as Malan says; it’s about understanding who you are reporting to, how they live, and under what constraints. Do they have access to or money for medical care, for treatment, for nutrition to support treatment? Do they understand the terminology you use? Science journalist Sibusiso Biyela says, when reporting news for people whose home language does not include words or concepts vital to conveying the science or clinical course of a disease, reporters have to “figure it out on the fly,” to find ways of expressing the inexpressible.

Understanding the context

To report effectively on COVID-19 in southern Africa, it’s important to understand how the pandemic has affected the region. A scan of the latest figures in a stats source like Worldometer gives the impression that African countries have not really suffered as Europe and the USA have. In part, that may be due to the massive “youth bulge” in our demographics: in Zambia, for example, over two thirds of the population are 24 or younger, while just over 5 percent are over 55; in Zimbabwe, the median age is just over 20; in Mozambique it’s 17.3.

But gaps in data may obscure some of the direct toll; and the indirect toll is revealed by excess death rates. Informed by past experience with Ebola and other epidemics, African governments reacted quickly to the advent of COVID-19 with international travel bans and internal restrictions, which had dire economic fallout: “In 2020, Sub-Saharan Africa experienced the worst underperformance ever recorded, with a growth rate of -1.9%, coupled with an increase of 32 million people living in extreme poverty. Healthcare systems, education and other essential services were massively disrupted. Moreover, developed countries’ rush to secure supplies of medical equipment and vaccines caused serious shortages in low- and middle-income countries, leading to much worse health outcomes and widening inequality,” as Côte d’Ivoire’s President, Alassane Ouattara, wrote in September 2020.

Southern Africa was in poor shape to face this emergency. A climate crisis hotspot, it had been hammered by two droughts in rapid succession; many millions of people in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe faced hunger by the beginning of 2020, and fully a third of Namibia’s people were affected by its worst drought in 90 years.

2020/2021 harvests were remarkably good in South Africa, the country hardest hit by COVID-19 itself. But it is struggling to recover from “an accelerating downward spiral of decline,” which gathered speed during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, resulting in institutional degeneration, widespread accusations of corruption, and economic growth figures way below what was needed to tackle the growing problems of massive unemployment and deepening inequity: less than a quarter of the population enjoys a middle-class or better lifestyle; the vast remainder are stuck in grinding poverty.

South Africa photo
A typical informal settlement in South Africa’s North West Province. (Mandi Smallhorne)

In the news

Newsrooms here, which had been absorbed by the demanding politics of the country (and which had, over the years, shed science and health desks) now had to suddenly wrap their heads around a 24/7 story that required an ability to find and interrogate science and scientists, follow and interpret statistics – and see all of this information through the lens of the socioeconomic realities. Even independent journalism organizations dedicated to health reporting, such as Bhekisisa and Health-e News, had their work cut out trying to hold a 360-degree view of the virus, the clinical course of the disease, the treatment, and the socioeconomic context.

That context promptly worsened. From March 27, 2020 onward, South Africa saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs due to a hard lockdown in the big regional economy, which exerts a magnetic pull on neighboring economies. The ripple effects were rapidly apparent. “Hunger and food insecurity – the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources – have increased in South Africa due to the pandemic…”, according to Professors Servaas van der Berg and Leila Patel, writing in The Conversation in July 2021.

The differences between the pandemic experience in the relatively wealthy Global North and our experiences in South and southern Africa were plain long before vaccine inequity reared its head: with a pared-down fiscus, a South African government which had lost an estimated R1.5 trillion due to corruption alone from 2014-2019 could only offer R350 a month (about $22, not even close to the much disputed $1.90 dollar-a-day level of poverty) through a Social Relief of Distress grant, as well as some support for employers (the Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme). In neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, job losses, inflationary shocks to food prices, and inadequate social support caused severe distress.

Small as South Africa’s grants were, they made a huge difference; unfortunately, they also drew the attention of the ever-circling vultures keen to enrich themselves from the pot intended to help the very poor. By September 2020, NGO Corruption Watch was claiming that “less than half of those eligible [for the social grants] have received them, while others have fraudulently tried to claim.” News of corruption just kept coming: corruption around personal protective equipment (PPE) tenders, fogging of schools, and even, in a scandal that resulted in a change of Minister of Health, involving a tender to do communications around COVID-19.

South Africa
A typical informal settlement in South Africa’s North West Province. (Mandi Smallhorne)

Lessons for media

Stories about corruption and failures of government are meat and drink to journalists who have worked in this region in recent decades. But, stories about science, not so much.

The lack of familiarity with the sciences and research can lead, as Biyela points out, to reporting with potentially unfortunate consequences. If you don’t fully grasp the uncertainties of evolving science, it is all too easy to write a story that is too sure, too unqualified (“Omicron results in mild disease,” for example). Informing the media-consuming public about the process of science is vital, he says; if the reader does not understand how science unfolds and progresses, definitive statements in reporting may make them feel they’re being lied to or fooled – which makes them more vulnerable to disinformation.

Some basic principles of journalism should be followed in science or health stories, as in others, Biyela says:

  • Always seek more than one source
  • Don’t use press releases as cut-and-paste resources
  • If you don’t understand something, ask until you do
  • Don’t be a praise-singer, for a person or point-of-view
  • Remember your mandate is to report in the public interest

As University of Cape Town Professor Herman Wasserman says, “an emphasis on diversity of voices and awareness of social context should be the starting point for any attempt to regain the public’s trust.”

Countering disinformation

Disinformation surrounding COVID-19 in the region is rampant. Kristy Roschke of the News Co/Lab, a Cronkite School initiative, aptly says that “we have a confluence of events — an overload of choices, bad actors manipulating information and platforms, public officials pushing a narrative of ‘fake news’ and the steep decline of the business of journalism — that have significantly upped the stakes.”

Deep divisions, political turbulence and interference by states like Mozambique in media freedom in the southern African region have affected trust in the media. Even in South Africa, Wasserman writes, “the Global Disinformation Index… suggests that 41% of South Africans distrust the media. And a worrying 70% have problems distinguishing news from ‘fake’ news.” In Zimbabwe, social media is widely regarded as a source of reliable news due to mistrust in state-controlled media.

During the pandemic this has turbo-charged a trust in sources other than “mainstream media” — “news” reported on social media, on “bad actor” websites, in YouTube videos that are often glossy and slick, with high production values.

This has clear fallout for public health: “Major issues driving the low acceptance rate[of vaccines] included confusing information and anti-vaccine campaigns warning Africans to refuse COVID-19 vaccines on social media; negative perceptions of the pharmaceutical industry; concerns about the reliability or source of vaccines; and cost to individuals,” wrote researchers in The Lancet in March.

Understanding social media as a channel for news, indeed a preferred channel, should drive journalists to use it themselves, Malan says. She has used Twitter to great effect as a reporting tool during the pandemic; her long Twitter threads are swooped on by people hungry for solid information and immediately get retweeted over and over again.  Instead of engaging directly with disinformation, she provides correct and well-researched material. You’re not doing your job “if you don’t use the same channels to provide the right info,” she says.

There is a real hunger for news in this region, but only about 5 percent read newspapers – some get their media fix from radio and TV, but online media channels are way ahead of the game, and no less than 41 percent of the population are using social media across southern Africa. It makes sense to fight fire with fire.

About this briefing
This story is part of a series of briefings written by science/health journalists who have offered best practices and insights on covering COVID-19. These briefings are being published as part of a Knight Center initiative sponsored by UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization. To read more about the briefings, click here. Additionally, access the briefings in multiple languages here:

Additionally, join us for the webinar “Variants, vaccines and medications: What journalists need to know to improve COVID-19 coverage” on Thursday, Jan. 27 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. U.S. Central Time (GMT -6).

The event, held in English, will feature simultaneous interpretation to Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Click here to register.

This webinar is being organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in partnership with UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.


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