Posted by on July 28, 2020

By Margaret Mwantok

26 May 2020  

Communication, they say, empowers society when properly used but destroys it when poorly handled: A case study being COVID-19. Nigerians have continued to lament the gaps in proper communication around the pandemic, with many doubting its existence in the country.

Some sceptics said the Federal Government was just sustaining activities around the virus for the donation gains. For instance, people have not been educated on the proper way to wear facemasks; some do not take hygiene seriously, especially when it comes to washing of hands.

The Guardian findings reveal that most people wear a facemask to avoid being harassed by the police. This means that more people could be contracting the virus through dirty facemasks and wrong use. A visit to Oyingbo Market, in Ebute Metta, Lagos revealed how many ignore the use of facemasks and social distancing.

A source told The Guardian that the level of compliance is equally poor in Abuja. According to the source, “people just move around without facemasks, others only use it on sighting the police. Even on TV, you will see presenters and guests using their hands to adjust the masks, which is wrong. In Abuja, taxi drivers hang some masks in their cars and give to passengers to use while on the trip, then recycle for the next passenger.”

Many have also argued that this is the time the National Orientation Agency should be pushing out a series of campaigns to correct these misconceptions, especially at the grassroots level.

The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been advised to partner with the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to achieve success with the campaigns. But the NOA seems to be asleep at a time like this.

Former Director-General, Nigerian Television Authority, Tonnie Iredia, recently said that despite the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) recommendation of 1970, as a decade of communication, urging countries to adopt communication for national development, Nigeria was yet to evolve a communication policy and strategy with which to drive national development objectives leaving the country’s communication system in the realm of experimentation. And consequently, instead of sharing basic information, Nigerian state actors are left to sing discordant tunes.

Communication is the sharing of ideas where the sender and receiver of information have the same understanding of the message sent. Otherwise, different receivers would act the way they understand the message.

For instance, Nigerians differently understood the invitation by the government to China to lend a helping hand to Nigeria at this critical period of coronavirus pandemic. How come the government did not bother to get the technical stakeholders – medical workers to understand the message? The public rejection of the invitation by the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) underscored the government’s failure to communicate effectively.

The few messages sent by NCDC, encourage Nigerians to wash their hands under running water for at least 20 seconds, but how many Nigerian homes have running water?

For Iredia, “Nigerians did not take the stay at home directives on COVID-19 pandemic seriously, not only because many people had to go in search of livelihood, but because no one saw sufficient seriousness in the directives. To start with, there were too many exemptions, which created several loopholes for breaches.

“Those sharing palliative, for instance, did not obey social distancing. State governments did not demonstrate any signs of uniformity to the pandemic as some inadvertently legitimized the erroneous belief that the virus could not affect Africa the way it was devastating the western world.”

It has been reported that the virus is at community transmission level and people must take actions to avoid getting infected and infecting others. Hence, the government must change its communication strategy to preaching change in behaviour and lifestyle. Are Nigerians ready to manage life with COVID-19 as a permanent, constant, invisible enemy? Are people ready for the new life?

Though it is not easy to change people, however, the government needs to provide support to carry out the new lifestyle behaviour consistently over the required period of time.
The preventive and coping measures for COVID-19, including personal hygiene, wearing of facemasks and social distancing, are new behaviours that must be internalised and carried out repeatedly.

According to Bunmi Makinwa, the CEO of Auniquei Communication for Leadership, “Societal and individual behaviour change and modifications must accompany any serious, determined attempt to limit the impact of COVID-19. Mere awareness of the disease does not result in sustained changes by society or individuals. Studies and practice of behaviour and social changes over decades demonstrate that carefully construed approaches tailored to categories of people are needed.”

The Assistant Director, NOA, David Akoji, told The Guardian that NOA was doing a lot of grassroots sensitisation using Daily Trust and Punch to share what the agency is doing.
He said, “many Nigerians do not know governments response structure and strategy and because of that they are calling NOA out on social media and other platforms. People criticise you when you are relevant. The response structure on COVID-19 has a risk committee made up of medical practitioners that design the communication strategy. The people that are positioned to play the role that ordinarily NOA should be playing are the health promotion officers both at the community and federal levels.”

Despite all these, he said NOA had accepted the responsibility that was not given to it. “We have been doing the bit that we can on social and conventional media in terms of community engagement.

“Our reality on the ground, which to my surprise, even people at an intellectual level seem not to be understanding, is the fact that because of COVID-19, Nigeria is not getting revenue like before, just like other countries in the world. We need to exit the tendency for finger-pointing and accept our reality that there is no money to fund projects. This is our position at the NOA,” he said.

Reacting to the possibility of a partnership with other agencies to drive awareness campaigns, such as the seven-series short drama UNECSO, Nigeria has produced in pidgin to reach the grassroots, Akoji said producing the drama was the soft spot for NOA, but getting them to air on TV or Radio was the biggest challenge in terms of cost implications. “These costs are quite high, especially when you talk of private stations, to get the desired result. Nigerians need to be patient as it will take consistent talking for people to get the message. We will never get tired of talking no matter how we are criticized because we know that people are talking out of ignorance,” he added.

On how the Federal Government could assist the agency, Akoji said, “at the NOA, we have community orientation and mobilization officers. The first challenge is that these officers do not have mobility; they also do not have IEC materials, such as fliers. This is to say that when they go into the markets and talk verbally; they are supposed to leave fliers and other educational materials with the people to serve as a constant reminder. But of course, these fliers are not done by goodwill.

“Some of our directors have been using personal vehicles to navigate hard to reach areas, and they are not compensated when the vehicles breakdown, because as far as the government is concerned, they are personal vehicles.”

He called on NGOs and other organizations to support government’s effort in the fight against coronavirus, adding, “People are not always enthusiastic about helping government agencies, but if somebody can purchase five or ten motorcycles, it would help the logistics problems for our people at the grassroots.”

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