South Africa: Effective Government Communication Instils Hope During Covid-19 Pandemic

Government's effective communication of the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped instil hope that the country, with the help of every citizen, can turn the corner and emerge stronger after the virus has subsided.

This according to initial research that has been conducted, said Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) Policy and Research Chief Director, Tasneem Carrim, during a dialogue on Thursday.

The Digital Media Webinar delved into the issue of how government can leverage social media in the fight against COVID-19. It was hosted by the GCIS and the University of Johannesburg's (UJ) Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

"Our nation's communication system, spearheaded by the GCIS, has played an instrumental role in the fight against COVID-19," Carrim said.

Research, she said, shows that communication has been effective it reassuring South Africans and guiding their actions through the onslaught of the pandemic.

"It did help instil some hope that the country, with the help of every citizen, could turn the corner and emerge stronger after the virus had subsided."

Research also shows that the integrated campaign, in which the GCIS employed social media as one of the bouquet of communication tools, was "effective in reaching the public on safety messages and what the public could expect and do to stem the tide of the virus".

In this regard, she said, there had been "heightened communication on all fronts".

Carrim said, as the GCIS sought to inform, educate and reassure South Africans, its push has been to constantly remind the public that they are part of the solution.

During this period, the department focused on instilling behaviour change by profiling everyday preventative measures.

"We did foster greater compliance with regard to South Africans staying home and wearing masks comparatively speaking. Again, our research shows that South Africa was largely successful. And you want some recognition through the WHO for our efforts in dealing with this infodemic.

"So in leading communication in this difficult period, we had to understand that the pandemic changed the way government would communicate and engage with citizens," she said.

Lockdown regulations and restrictions posed limitations on the department executing its mandate. However, she said, it was able to manoeuvre these with apt interventions.

"We took a conscious decision towards a strong shift to digital platforms such as national portals, mobile apps, social media, Whatsapp bots, and so on," Carrim said.

Even with communities that had previously not had much access to social media, GCIS messaging had helped accelerate the spread of information to reach all communities.

During this time, GCIS set up a dedicated WhatsApp information service and a 24-hour Coronavirus hotline. The department also had the sacoronavirus.co.za and www.gov.za websites as the first port of call for many South Africans looking for information on the virus in government support.

Government messaging was amplified on the department's social media platforms.

"[They] played a role in disseminating information and providing room for engaging with the public to answer the questions and concerns [and] public service announcements were also part of the suite of communication tactics. We worked very closely with the broadcasters and television was used," she said.

While social media has played a positive role in the dissemination of information, it has proved to be fertile ground for the spread of falsehoods and disinformation.

Carrim conceded that the journey had been difficult in this regard. To dismiss inaccurate posts, the department has partnered with agencies such as Africa Check and other organisations that verify or dismiss fake pieces of information.

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