ZAMBIA recorded its first cases of Covid 19 on 18th March. Over the past few weeks and months a number of political leaders from sides of the divide – opposition and ruling party – have either been tested positive for Covid 19 or been associated with hot spots and forced to consider quarantining themselves.
The impact of Covid 19 on the leadership of the country can be analysed from two perspectives. The first is that it reflects and buttresses the new reality that has hit the country and families. Covid 19 is now a reality we have to cope with. It has been given a human face. It is no longer a case of a disease ‘that is out there and for others’, as many perceived it in the earlier days. Soon it will be a case of ‘either you are or have been infected or you are or have been affected’ as has been the case with HIV and AIDS. The warning that no one is immune from and that no place is safe has come to past. Let’s take it seriously.
The second perspective, of interest to this article, is how our leaders have been reacting to Covid 19 positive tests and the messages they have been sending to the nation. There reactions can be examined utterly from a behaviour change communication (BCC) prism, which applies to health matters. The BCC or Human Behaviour model is defined as “a preventive approach and focuses on lifestyle behaviours that impact on health. It “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).
At the core of BCC strategy is the message/s one is sending to the followers. The English dictionary defines a message as 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). In other words, what matters most is not what one says but rather how the recipients interpret the message.
The key anti-Covid 19 messages that have been globally accepted are: 1. Covid 19 is real; 2. avoid stigmatization; 3. everyone can get Covid 19; and, 4. everyone must adhere to the Ministry of Health guidelines on Covid, which include: social distancing, washing hands, wearing a mask when in public, staying home unless going out is necessary, etc. From a message factor perspective, the conduct of our leaders can be analysed in terms of conformity with these key messages.
While we as citizens are all judged by how we adhere the Covid 19 health guidelines, the spotlight is particularly on those who occupy positions of leadership in whatever sphere of life. Again, from a behaviour change perspective and from years and volumes of media research, leaders belong to a group of people in society known as ‘opinion leaders or “opinion formers’. By themselves they are regarded as the messages. They as important is the message itself, hence Canadian communication thinker Marshall McLuhan (1964) wrote the masterpiece of a textbook and ‘bible’ of media studies titled, ”The Medium is the Message”. 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.”
From the above trajectories a critical analysis of our leaders’ conduct vis-à-vis the Covid 19 points to two sets of messages: 1. Positive with potential for intended outcomes; 2. Negative with potential for unintended consequences. I have grouped the messages into the following: positive role modelling; hope; hypocritical; and, stigmatisation and denial.
Positive Role Modelling: this applies to Defense minister Davies Chama when he announced in March that he had gone into self-quarantine after returning from DRC, a then hot spot destination and Information and Broadcasting Minister Dora Siliya’s video announcement on 23rd May about her positive status. In the same video she once again warned the country to take the disease seriously. It also applies to Lusaka Province minister Bowman Lusambo’s and Keembe MP Princess Kasune’s revelations of their positive statuses. Both Lusambo and Kasune have since become anti-Covid 19 campaigners in their own respective ways and advocates of health lifestyles vis-à-vis the pandemic. In the Zambia Daily Mail dated 1st August, Kasume said this to her social media ‘followers’, “I told my family that I was going public about my status so that I could sensitise others.”
This set of messages has potential is urge citizens to be positive about the pandemic and take tests by themselves.
Hope – The sheer confidence with which Lusambo, Kasune and Siliya conveyed their Covid 19 positive statuses to the nation is a positive factor for the anti-Covid campaign. Impact of confidence of the source of a message has 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.”
These messages has potential to instill hope and defiance against the disease. It assures those that are bed ridden today that they will get better and, in Queen Elizabeth’s message on 5th April, “we will meet again.”
Hypocritical – The ruling Patriotic Front and its government, through the Ministry of Health, are the carriers of the anti-Covid 19 messages and the President, as first citizen, is Campaigner-in-chief. Images of brazen breaking of the health guidelines at events organised by or featuring senior PF and government officials sends signals of disrespect for the country’s BCC campaign strategy and sheer hypocrisy. For instance, images have been circulating online of ecstatic crowds that went to witness the President’s official launch of the Makeni flyover bridge on Monday 3rd August; majority of the people in the crowd were mask-less and not socially distanced. This applies to the people that went to offer solidarity to Health Minister Chitalu Chilufya during his court appearing on 9th July. Likewise, on 27th July Lusambo said this to the media, “I’m worried about crowds that followed me in Kitwe.” He is also on record as the most ruthless government official towards individuals who abrogated the anti-Covid 19 health guidelines in Lusaka, especially during the early days of the ‘lockdown’. His catching the virus has been described as equally hypocritical and a semblance of “do what I say not what I do”.
These hypocritical acts and bad examples from the leadership could be said to be responsible for the country-wide non-adherence to the health guidelines. There is overwhelming research data which confirms that followers believe in and by-and-large emulate the conduct of their leaders or ‘role models’. The generally negative attitudes towards wearing face masks among Donald Trump’s supporters lends fresh evidence to this body of knowledge.
Denial and stigmatisation – when his name was merely associated with Covid 19 by News Diggers, Home Affairs minister Stephen Kampyongo angrily said the following on Hot FM’s breakfast show on 6th April, “For you, our colleagues in the media, you imagine me coming here on a very big platform to say, ‘no, Mr Joseph Mwenda, who was at The Post, now at [News] Diggers!…I saw him at the clinic collecting ARVs and I think that’s why he has gone slim, he is HIV positive,’ can you imagine? How many people would take that and how much impact it would have on Mr Mwenda’s family? So, we have to be responsible, we are public figures.”
UPND deputy national spokesperson Cornelius Mweetwa reportedly questioned the accuracy of the Covid 19 tests conducted at Parliament and advised that there was “need for UPND Members of Parliament to seek a second Covid 19 testing as the one conducted by the National Assembly has proven unreliable.” While there may be nothing wrong with the view, it could make thousands of followers out there to resent testing and could erode confidence in the entire testing regime.
Equally Kasune’s first reaction to her positive test was to blame government: “As the MP for Keembe Constituency, l was one of those raising the concern at Parliament and in our Health Committee on why our Parliament continued mixing. Leadership crisis in Zambia. We relaxed our rules too early in Zambia, my very point of order at Parliament.” While this is true, as I have stated on this forum previously, we all know that to a large extent prevention from getting the various is largely a personal responsibility.
Kampyongo’s reaction is typical sigmatisation akin to what has been experienced in HIV and AIDS for years. Years and volumes of research blame it for pre-mature deaths in people afflicted with AIDS and for non-adherence to HIV and AIDS treatment generally. The reactions by Kasune and Mweetwa also have inklings of denial, which is simply defined as “it can’t happen to me” or “I don’t believe it is here.” It is equally at odds with the ethos of behaviour change campaigns.
Unfortunately, Chilufya’s silent disappearance from the public limelight in late March due to his Covid 19 positive test falls in this category. His disappearance was only made public by Secretary to the Cabinet Dr. Simon Miti. Why so for the entire Minister of Health?
To conclude, thus far our leaders have been sending mixed, contradictory and confusing messages on Covid 19. It speaks to lack of a cohesive national behaviour change communication strategy. We can’t win the new ‘invisible war’ with a Chpantepante approach.
The author is a media, governance and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on pmbozi5ATyahooDOTcom.