19 August 2021 – 07:00
The Government Communication and Information System on Wednesday batted away criticism that there was no communication strategy around the Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s vaccination rollout.
“We have started working on the enormous machinery of government communications that exists in communities and municipalities to get those local influencers to keep encouraging and using that use of local languages to say, ‘Look we want to educate’,” said GCIS’s Michael Currin.
On Tuesday, the national health department’s communication strategy was criticised, with MPs in the National Council of Provinces saying the government was not speaking effectively on the pandemic.
At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that the national department did not have a communication budget to carry out its mass mobilisation strategy to encourage people to get vaccinated after the numbers showed a slow uptake.
After the R150m Digital Vibes scandal, which led to the axing of former health minister Zweli Mkhize, the department has partnered the GCIS and the private sector to inform the nation about the pandemic. It is also relying on its internal communication department to drive the message.
“I know that Digital Vibes didn’t do anybody any favour,” said Currin, who was speaking during a webinar held in partnership with the National Press Club and the SA Health Products Authority.
When the pandemic first hit our shores, South Africans were bombarded with Covid-19 information on radio, television and in print on how to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
However, recently the government appears to be struggling to get South Africans to get vaccinated with many vaccination sites standing empty. This, coupled with fake news and disinformation on social media platforms, means that the government needs to work twice as hard to convince South Africans to get vaccinated.
Currin said: “We are trying to mobilise a whole range of partners in terms of rising to this other mountain. Remember last year there was another mountain of not wanting to wear a mask and wash hands and by August last year 80% of the public were accepting that those things had to happen.”
He said the government was alive to the fact that there was a huge uptake in the vaccines when the programme began and then it slowed down.
“A lot of research came out to say that there was a degree of hesitancy but I can assure you that lots of material produced by health and others had been translated to other languages.”
He added that a lot of influence in community radio, loud hailing, activations in communities will assist communities to heed the call.
Currin added that there are weekly meetings on Tuesday mornings between government, business, organised labour and community representatives “where we are sharing information”.
Freelance health journalist Pontsho Pilane highlighted the importance of making information accessible in indigenous languages.
“There is a general distrust between the government and its citizens and that distrust needs to be addressed where South Africans don’t trust government services. What the pandemic has done is to highlight these gaps even more.”
She said most of the information on the pandemic was communicated in English, which means it leaves some South Africans behind.
Pilane said the government needs to embark on proactive rather than the reactive communication strategy that we have seen in the past 18 months.
Meanwhile, Sahpra announced that it will on Friday launch a microsite that will allow citizens to report adverse events after immunisation.
Sahpra’s Mafora Matlala said citizens can also use the existing Med Safety App should they experience adverse events.
Prof Hannelie Meyer from the National Immunisation Safety Expert Committee also encouraged people to report adverse events so that they can be investigated.
“If the adverse events do not subside within the 30 days of taking the vaccine then you need to seek medical assistance at a clinic, hospital or community health centre,” said Meyer.