By Parkie Mbozi
ON FRIDAY 23 2020 Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Dora Siliya released a video announcing that she had contracted the infectious Corona or COVID 19 virus. This was shocking news to many of us in the country. Ms Siliya has been one of the faces of the country’s fight against the pandemic, ostensibly the loudest voice in urging the citizens to take the disease seriously by adhering to the preventative measures announced by the Ministry of Health.
Siliya becomes the first high ranking public personalist, whether from the private or public sector, to do so. Hats off to her for that. There are two main reasons Siliya’s announcement should be taken and analysed utterly from a behaviour change communication (BCC) prism: 1. She is no ordinary person; she is not only the Minister of MIBS but also the chief government spokesperson’ 2. Her announcement was not private to relatives and close associates but rather a public message to the nation at large, akin to Boris Johnson’s to the world and British public on 27 March, 2020.
Any messaging on health issues, such HIV and AIDS and (now) COVID 19, falls in the BCC or Human Behaviour realm and model. It is defined as “a preventive approach and focuses on lifestyle behaviours that impact on health. … The behavioural change model “is based on the belief that providing people with information will change their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours” (Wikipedia). The model further suggests that “a person’s belief in a personal threat of an illness or disease together with a person’s belief in the effectiveness of the recommended health behavior or action will predict the likelihood the person will adopt the behavior” (Ibid).
From this understanding, Ms Siliya’s announcement was ostensibly calculated to send a message or messages to the nation to achieve positive results at one or all stages of the behaviour change process: awareness, knowledge, perceptions, attitudes and (hopefully) behaviour (i.e. all the preventative measures – social distancing, wearing masks, sanitation, etc). At the core of BCC is the message/s one is sending to the intended audiences – primary or secondary. A message is the content or “a communication containing some information, news, advice, request, or the like, sent by messenger, telephone, email, or other means” . In other words, a message is what you say or intended to say to someone or a group of people.
A message can be plain (overtly or explicitly) or implied (covertly or implicitly). It can also produce intended results or unintended (or boomerang) results depending on how it is calibrated; hence we often hear people say, “that’s not what I meant to say.” A critical aspect of deciphering meaning is the human interpretation or decoding, defined as how people receive the message of communication “and turn it back into thoughts to make meaning” (Ibid). From these perspectives we can analyse Ms Siliya’s COVID 19 announcement in terms of the positive result and (unfortunately) the negative meaning from a BCC trajectory as follows: hope and human face/interest on one hand, and hopelessness and fear factor or scare tactics on the other. There are undoubtedly many versions of interpretations of Ms Siliya’s message, but I will focus on these four. Her message was posted on YouTube and available on various online platforms thus allowing the Zambian audiences to react to it. As I analyse I will post some of the narratives from selected readers.
Message 1 – Hope: The sheer confidence with which Ms Siliya conveyed her video message is a positive factor for the anti-Covid campaign in that it has a potential to instill hope in many of the citizens. Confidence and officialness of the communication are two message factors that have attracted massive research in BCC. Quoting extensive research data this author wrote in his MA Thesis (Mbozi, 1997:38), “messages that are presented more confidently tend to persuade more than the messages that are presented with uncertainty. Reich and Adcock (1974:61) conclude that “a source is increasingly persuasive as his message increases in confidence whether expressed over linguistic or kinetic channels.”
With a defiant tone Ms Silya said, “I urge you to remain calm and please work with the health officials so that we keep you and your families safe.” She added, “Together we will defeat the coronavirus. Do stay blessed and God Bless.” Some of the readers of the story seem to have been encouraged by Ms Siliya’s defiant tone. A reader wrote, “No need to worry, Dora. The fact that you’re not showing any symptoms shows that your immunity is at it’s best, so you’ll recover quickly without any treatment like so many other Zambians who haven’t even been tested.”
The fact that Ms Siliya is high ranking public figure and, in BCC narrative, an ‘opinion leader’ or ‘influential’, also heightens her potential to render positive results for the anti-Covid campaign. Again quoting extensive research, this author (Mbozi, 1997:38) wrote in his Master’s degree thesis on HIV/AIDS that, “Their influence is based on the fact that opinion leaders are the most powerful in their societies, have more access to the channels of mass communication and are, usually, leaders of groups.”
Message 2 – Human face/Interest: Ms Siliya gave the COVID 19 disease a human face. Until her revelation COVID 19 was largely an invisible disease, presented only in figures of its victims. Whilst others, such as Hon Kampyongo, went ballistic by mere association of his name to the disease, she was brave enough to give us the first major face of the disease. This is in line with the call by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “That is why we prefer to see the faces, the individuals, the people. They are not numbers. They are not averages. They are people. They are individuals.” The use of role models, from all walks of life, has been a key BCC strategy, especially since the time of HIV and AIDS. First Republican President Dr Kenneth Kaunda, for instance, won national and international accolades for being the first head of state to announce that his son Masuzyo had died of AIDS.
A number of readers saw Ms Siliya’s revelation from this perspective. One wrote, “Get well soon! It sends a message to all of us that this is real and we need to take extra precaution.”
Message 3 – Hopelessness: on a negative note (unfortunately), Ms Siliya sent a message of hopelessness when she said, “I have been very involved in risk communication in the fight against Coronavirus.” She went on, ”However, I regret to announce that even after taking all precautions, washing my face and hands regularly, masking and observing social distancing, as much as possible, yesterday (Friday) I did test positive for COVID 19.”
The question on the minds of many of her audiences is, if a privileged personality like her, who has all the resources at her disposal to afford the preventative measures being advocated for without compromising say economic opportunities like the folks at Soweto can get it, what more them? Ms Siliya’s message also implies that no matter what one does, they can still acquire the virus. Many studies have proved that loss of hope leads people to engage “in high levels of risky behaviour.” When people feel they can not achieve the advocated position, whether for reason of lack of resources or will power to do, they simply give up. One beach goer in the USA, for instance, told CNN the other day that they care less about Covid 19 because they will still die from other means anyway.
Message 4 – Scare tactics: by stating that despite taking all the precautions she had contracted the disease, Ms Siliya was also overtly resounding her consistent warning about the dangers of the disease. She has been the loudest voice during the hitherto daily briefings and tour of compounds warning people to take the disease seriously. She may have seized this opportunity to use herself as the living testimony of the impact of the disease. Although research has produced conflicting results about the negative impact of scare tactics in attitude-behaviour change, the majority of studies reveal that they produce boomerang or unintended results on audiences. People simply ignore messages that scare the hell out of them.
Two researchers, Kahn, 1984:100 and Schneider, 1976: 273) thus concluded that, “There is also sufficient evidence to suggest that people who fail to adopt the recommended course of action are left with high fear. As a result, they may try to minimize the dangers by convincing themselves that they will not be affected or, as a last resort, by not thinking about the Issue altogether. It may be concluded from the foregoing, that scare tactics are if successful only when the subjects have the psychological and material capacity to adopt the unpleasant condition with minimal loss of their self-identity.”
The Conspiracy Theory – readers also have had their own interpretations of Ms Siliya’s revelation, alluding to some conspiracy theories, which plays to an old theory we call ‘reinforcement’. This author (Mbozi, 1997) wrote, “After decades of research it has been proved beyond doubt that the values, opinions and attitudes people hold (on an issue) before being exposed to communication have great influence on their reaction to the on-coming messages” (Dexter and White, 1964).
One readers wrote, “Fake….just lying that she tested positive…dont believe these politicians…too much gimmicks…looks like real COVID of two months ago is gone…now we have fake COVID which is not killing anyone.” Another said, “Fake news dolo sili (Dora Siliya) is fine government just what to keep stealing donations money, they want to make people believe that this is serious while not. People don’t be fooled open your eyes pf now is a government of thieves.”
To conclude, Ms Siliya’s announcement may have produced both intended and unintended results on her audiences in terms of awareness, knowledge, perceptions/attitudes and behaviours about the dreaded Covid 19 disease. While some of the reader comments give a hint to some of these outcomes, only full research will provide conclusive evidence when all is said and done. Allow me to end by wishing Hon Siliya, and (on a personal level) my long-time friend, quick recovery.
The author is a media and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on [email protected] The facts and figures in this article were sourced from WHO recognized and international media sources.