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South Africa provides a stark comparison of the government’s reaction to two deadly epidemics — HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, Mia Malan, a veteran journalist who covered both outbreaks, said in an ICFJ webinar on Thursday.
In the case of HIV, government officials had an extremely hostile relationship with the news media, she said. Access to health department information was virtually nonexistent.
With COVID-19, Malan said South Africa’s government did an about face. From the early stages, it quickly established a widely praised, evidence-based response that included cooperation with the country’s press corps. Special WhatsApp groups were created to provide access to information for journalists.
An award-winning journalist, Malan is the founding editor-in-chief of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, a pioneering, donor-funded media startup. She is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow and has 25 years of journalism, fundraising and institution-building experience in legacy media and digital publications in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, D.C.
Here are some highlights of the conversation:
On COVID-19 in South Africa
“We had our first case on March 5. We have about 2,500 cases now and just over 60 deaths. So it hasn't grown that quickly. One of the reasons is because we went into a very strict lockdown on March 26, at a very early stage of our outbreak. You're not allowed to go out for exercise. You can only go out to buy groceries or to go to the doctor . . . No alcohol or cigarette sales are allowed. We've got the army and the police patrolling our streets. It’s not like you can try and cheat.”
On contrast between government response to HIV vs. COVID-19
“In the late 1990s [and] early 2000s, HIV was at the height of its growth in South Africa. And we had a president and a health minister who believed the antiretroviral treatment was poisonous. We only got treatment at a very late stage in our HIV epidemic. As a consequence of that, lots of people died unnecessarily.”
“With COVID-19, our government's response has been the complete opposite. We’ve had a very early response. A lockdown started very early. We are in the process of dramatically expanding our testing . . . and we've seen a slowdown in the rate of infections.”
On media coverage of HIV vs. COVID-19
- “Earlier stories done during the HIV epidemic were not really helpful. They were more about conflict and really just trying to figure out what the truth was. When you have a president who doesn't accept what scientists say, what kinds of stories are you able to do?
“With COVID-19, we see a lot of stories that can empower people with information.”
On covering COVID-19
“It's not just science or health reporters reporting on it. It's everyone. So my advice would be in something like COVID your role is not just to get information out first. Your role is to package it in a way that people can use it. Most people are not comfortable with science; they find it boring. Our role is to make it interesting and to break it down so that someone can understand it, because science can save lives. It can be the difference between you getting infected or not.”
On South Africa and social distancing
“South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Eighty-six percent of South Africans don't have any form of health insurance. They have to use very dilapidated public health facilities. … A very large part of this country doesn't have access to running water. People live in crowded shacks made from whatever they can find and they live in overcrowded conditions.”
“The two most effective ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands and to stay apart from someone. That is simply not possible in a large part of this country.”
On how people are adjusting to the lockdown
“Initially, we had a three-week lockdown, but just before Easter, our president announced an extension for another two weeks. We don't know if it will be extended further than that. But we've had quite good communication around COVID in our country and we understand the reasons.”
On the downside of lockdown
- “Like everywhere else, there are very dire economic consequences. In South Africa, we have a lot of hunger, a lot of people who literally don't have food. While there is economic support from the government, it's limited.”
“Over the weekend, grocery stores in the eastern part of South Africa got looted by people who didn't have food. That is one of the reasons that our government is very seriously considering whether to relax some of the rules for the lockdown to allow people to get some sort of income.”
The Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum from ICFJ and IJNet connects journalists covering the novel coronavirus pandemic with leading health experts, resources and each other. Learn more and join the Forum through its Facebook group. Journalists can use these insights and quotes in their stories.