Phumla Williams: Public perception research sharpens COVID-19 government messaging

The lifting in April this year of the National State of Disaster, which was declared in March 2020 in terms of the Disaster Management Act of 2002 to contain the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), brought much-needed socio-economic relief in South Africa. 

The recent announcement also by the Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, that the Department of Health will no longer publish the daily COVID-19 statistics, was another milestone. These statistics previously provided a transparent and necessary picture of the surging daily infections and deaths nationally. 

It is an indisputable fact that the past two years have been a period of unchartered territory in our country since the advent of our democracy. With limited knowledge of the deadly virus that the World Health Organisation had declared a global pandemic, most countries, including South Africa, had to resort to drastic measures. These included risk-adjusted levels of restrictions and the more severe national lockdown that brought almost everything in the country to a virtual standstill. 

The country started dealing with COVID-19 cases when it had to repatriate South African students who were studying in Wuhan, China, where the highest number of cases of COVID-19 were reported. This was followed by the first case of COVID-19 detected in the country in March 2020. 

The swift response by government is probably what made South Africa succeed in weathering the storm within the two years of the virus descending on the country. One has to hasten to caution that although we managed to weaken COVID-19, it has not yet been completely eradicated in the country and worldwide. The virus is still virulent, and therefore should still be closely monitored and properly managed. 

One can only look back with pride and appreciation at the science-based interventions made by government, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the primary objective being to save lives and livelihoods. The daily new infections at the time made a number of sceptics doubt our ability as a country to respond adequately, but we never failed. 

The National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), which was chaired by the President, acknowledged that in addition to scientists advising and guiding the country’s response to COVID-19, we also required a strong communication and mass mobilisation work stream. This work stream was expected to report weekly to the technical National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) and ultimately to the NCCC.

The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) was tasked to lead this work stream. This task was made possible by the communication partnership GCIS set up to drive this work. The partners included business, labour, civil society organisations, traditional leaders, churches and our media partners.   

The key content nerve centre of all this  depended on the Department of Health with their scientist and the research support that was guiding how the messaging was packaged.   

This included using various products and platforms to, among other things, communicate the preventative health measures of wearing a mask, regularly washing hands with soap or using a 70% alcohol-based hand sanitiser and maintaining social distancing. 

In its allocated budget for this campaign, GCIS allocated some for research and in  some cases, partnered with the Solidarity Fund for this research. The outcome of these findings provided guidance on which platforms to use and how to package the content in an engaging manner that makes it accessible to our targeted recipients. 

Since COVID-19 was an unprecedented phenomenon, government needed to use a nuanced approach in some instances and also deal with the fake news that was circulating in social media and causing untold panic in South Africa. 

Research findings enabled government to understand the social and public health implications of the pandemic in order to respond to the information needs of the public. Our scientists and medical practitioners provided useful guidance on how to communicate impactful messages to the public. 

This week, we received the close-out research report done by Ask Africa, a Pretoria-based research company. Without detailing the report which was presented at the GCIS Webinar on Closeout Research Findings, the key findings of this research confirm the impact communication and mass mobilisation had on how citizens responded to COVID-19. 

It further confirms that citizens were empowered with information that enabled them to take responsibility in the fight against the onslaught of COVID-19. At the same time, it told us that almost three-quarters of the respondents perceived government positively on how it managed the pandemic and the vaccination programme, as well as the provision of social relief packages. 

This positive response is also attributed to effective government communication on the pandemic and the free vaccination programme.

In testing the government message on COVID 19, the findings show that over 90% of respondents recalled the messages about protecting oneself against COVID-19 through social distancing, isolation and staying safe, among others. The wearing of a mask (84%) and use of a hand sanitiser (72%) was the GCIS campaign message to all people in South Africa, which was seeking to minimise the spread of new infections. 

While emphasising the importance of vaccination to prevent severe illness, hospitalisation and even death, we also had to outline the voluntary aspect of this campaign. Research findings reveal that the awareness of the vaccination programme improved from 55% in 2021 to 87% in 2022. 

Public perception about government’s role in administering vaccines increased from 66% in 2021 to 85% in 2022. This is linked to government securing enough vaccines and making them easily accessible to all who want to be vaccinated. 

Taking into cognisance that vaccination was a necessary but voluntary option, we appreciate that even those who opted not to vaccinate, it was not due to lack of knowledge or awareness of the vaccination programme but of their own volition. 

The research insights confirm the decision of the NCCC, under the leadership of President Ramaphosa, that all people in South Africa need to embrace the ongoing battle against COVID-19. Such partnership with communities has undoubtedly enabled us to achieve what we sought to achieve to provide communities with information that will guide their decisions. 

Meanwhile, the close-out research has not only guided the GCIS on how to embark on a conventional approach to reach out to all citizens but it has also provided the department with valuable recommendations on how to sharpen its communication beyond COVID-19.

Phumla Williams is the Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System.