#WatchingtheVirusinNigeria: Containing COVID 19 through Strategic Communication and Information Management

It is been 24 hours since the news broke that the globally dreaded virus has entered Nigeria. It came through the most susceptible city in the country – Lagos, the commercial capital city of Nigeria. An Italian consultant was on a brief business trip. He fell sick and was discovered  to have been infected with the novel virus. He is being managed in a health facility in Lagos in a joint management arrangement  by the Federal Ministry of Health and Lagos State Government. Twenty eight people suspected to have had contact with the infected man are quarantined and being monitored.

Even though, tracking of names of possible contacts with the Italian who flew in from Milan has commenced, in a bid to stop the spread of the virus, there is an urgent need for strategic communication and information management of issues surrounding the disease so as not to give room for panic and possible outbreak of false information, rumours and misinformation which may be worse than the disease itself. While addressing foreign policy and security experts in Munich earlier in February, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has expressed his concern on associated issues that are likely to colour efforts at curtailing the spread of the disease. He raised serious concerns on the incidence of fake news, rumours and panic- factors that he collectively described as “infodemics.”  The WHO Chief had asked “Can we come together to face a common and dangerous enemy? Or will we allow fear, suspicion and irrationality to distract and divide us?”  He concluded that “this is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for rationality, not rumours. This is a time for solidarity, not stigma,”

While addressing news men in Abuja on Friday, few hours after the first case of the novel virus was discovered in the country, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed had also urged Nigerians not to panic as the government was well prepared to detect and curtail any incidence of the virus in the country. He warned against citizens falling prey to the antics of fake news distributors and rumour mongers saying “we know that at times like this, purveyors of fake news and disinformation usually ramp up their acts”. He hinted on the arrangement between the FG and Facebook on shutting out fake news and rumour mongers on the campaign.

It is established that trailing the fear of the outbreak of the disease is the issue of fake news, rumour mongering and disinformation. These could serve as more barriers and could worsen the situation beyond control leading to panic and stigmatization. This threat could have more profound impact on the fight against the novel virus if not checked.

Beyond the rhetorics, how well the  Nigerian agencies in charge of managing the beakout prepared to handle the information management in a professional and strategic manner would make or mar the campaign. What should be done urgently in communicating the fight against the COVID 19?  Here are some tips.

#Combat rumours and misinformation. The Federal Ministry of Health through the National Centre for Disease Control should lead this charge. They should popularize their verified social media handles and supply real time information on the virus as it emerges. There should also be a coordinated platform for communication among the 36 ministries of health across the states in Nigeria. To leave no room for rumours and misinformation, the agencies concerned must be above aboard in not leaving any information vacuum. A nationwide directive should be given to both public and privately owned radio and television stations to broadcast such updates from the NCDC. This should be translated into respective local languages of their areas live.This is a matter of national emergency and security.

#Regional approach to information dissemination. The dissemination of the information across the six states of the southwest should be regional. This could be achieved when commissioners for health across the states have a common platform where they exchange information about the disease. It is not only security that calls for synergy, this threat to the well being of the people should also be viewed as important so that the virus could be stopped before it wrecks havoc. Other regions such as the south east and the north  too should be prepared to go regional. Lagos is the gateway to the south. Already, the infected victim was said to have headed towards Ogun State. It is a matter of time before we see evidence of the novel virus in other states if regional emergency operations are not activated.

#Explore the Public-Private-People triad. The fight against the COVID 19 should explore a public-private-people triad. This simply means leveraging on public and private institutions to secure the buy in of the people for the messages of prevention and education. As it is, will the major GSM service providers to send out notifications and make unsolicited calls to their subscribers to deliver to them vital messages on protection, education and  numbers to call in case of emergencies and other necessary needs for the campaign. Is it impossible for other corporate bodies to assist the government stamp out false information, fake news and disinformation that evil minded people may want to explore? Can we have popular musicians, politicians and social media influencers take up the messages to save the nation from the dreaded disease to the people? People will know how serious this is when they see the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party in the 2019 election, Alh. Atiku Abubakar float anti-Coronavirus messages to the people through short videos and podcasts in both English and Hausa languages. As it is, in the days ahead, every institution, government, for profit and not for profit organizations, political parties and others  should rise up against coronavirus with a view to containing its spread.

As the nation surges forward and makes efforts to block coronavirus from spreading further in the country, major institutions should rise to ensure the fight is devoid of fake news, rumours and misinformation. The onus lies on all to ensure a secured country from the rampaging virus.

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