“The COVID-19 is a serious health crisis,” says Dr. Alex Gasasira, WHO Representative in Zimbabwe “And in a crisis, people get scared, they seek out information to stay safe. At the same time, a lot of rumours and half-truths get spread around. That is why we see false messages and videos circulating on social media, and unfounded theories about how the virus is transmitted. All of this misinformation can be deadly. We’re facing not only a health crisis, but potentially an information crisis.”
As in any country, rumour, innuendo, lies, and half-truths spread rapidly in Zimbabwe. Roughly two weeks ago, for example, a press release reportedly from the Office of the President made the rounds on social media, announcing that the national lockdown on COVID-19 had been extended. Countless people had seen or heard the so-called news before the press release was revealed as a forgery.
As of 23 June, six people had died of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe. “Thankfully, that number is low right now,” says Dr. Gasasira. “But it could rise fast, especially if misinformation spreads fast.” To contain the spread of the disease, the United Nations and partners are working with media to boost their role in reporting accurately on the coronavirus so that audiences can stay safe.
A series of online workshops convened by the UN Communications Group, comprising all 25 UN entities, brought together 500 journalists from nationwide with 100 government officials, youth leaders, and others on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19. Journalists in the training came from the country’s 55 registered outlets in print, radio, digital, and other media, as well as from the corps of “citizen journalists” that has arisen around the edges of official media.
The level of public knowledge about coronavirus is low, and even some journalists are just getting up to speed. “There were a lot of things about COVID-19 that became clear in the workshop,” says Columbus Mavhunga, a multimedia journalist. “For example, the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19—I now know that the former causes the latter.” Mavhunga said the workshop also cleared up myths about the pandemic and covered the ethical dimensions of reporting on COVID-19.
The training also played an important practical role, connecting journalists with government officials, who can serve as sources for reporters. “People always improvise when there is an information gap,” adds Lynette Manzini, another journalist who attended the training. “The workshop helped to bridge the gap between Ministry officials and journalists and suffocate the grapevine.”
If journalists have a role to play in sharing safety information, they sometimes face obstacles in putting it into practice. So says Abigail Tembo, a reporter with Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the only broadcast station in this nation of 14 million people. “Viewers want audible audio. They want human connection. That means I have to pin a microphone to a lapel. I have to record the emotions and get good quality story,” she says. The problem is, like many other countries, Zimbabwe is facing a dire shortage of face masks and other protection. Even many health care workers are lacking personal protective equipment; reporters have even less.
“We don’t live in a vacuum. We have to go back to our families,” says Tembo. “Yet we don’t even know what we are exposing them to because every day we talk to various people. If you get a cough or a slight headache you think you have the coronavirus. We live in fear and anxiety.”
Speaking during the training, Dr. Anywhere Mutambudzi from the Ministry of Information said journalists should receive protective equipment from their employers. He added that TV journalists should ensure that their interviewees are wearing protective gear in the proper way “so that we don’t only protect ourselves but so that we can be role models to viewers.”
The burden of any health crisis is not borne equally throughout society, says Dr. Angela Muriithi, Plan International Country Director in Zimbabwe, who spoke at the workshop. “The most vulnerable populations — children, women and adolescent girls, youth, persons with disabilities and the elderly — are often much more adversely affected. Media practitioners should design more content specifically for the needs of these groups.”
“People are hungry for information,” says Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO Regional Director for Southern Africa, who addressed journalists in the workshop. “The people of Zimbabwe need you in this work. We need you to share facts and dispel myths. Accurate reporting is one of the best tools we have to stop this disease. In a very real sense, you, journalists, are on the front lines of this fight.”