In the autumn of 2020 our lives changed forever when the Covid-19 pandemic, which was sweeping across the world, first reached our shores. In the blink of an eye our daily lives were upended, and our entire nation was faced with a new reality. Two years later much has changed, and the initial uncertainty which greeted the start of the pandemic has been replaced by a steady determination to move forward and rebuild.
Government would be the first to admit that this unprecedented time has brought many challenges, and has required us to constantly adjust and learn. As a caring government we have taken on board the many suggestions and criticisms, and have used what we have learned to strike a fine balance between the need to save lives and livelihoods.
Informed by science and our medical experts, government used the initial lockdown and the subsequent ones to lower infections, while also ensuring that our health system was prepared to face the pandemic head on.
Our common mantra of maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing hands with soap and water or sanitizer was achieved because of a relentless and coordinated communication drive. In the crucial first few weeks of the pandemic research shows that government was among the most trusted sources of information for COVID-19.
Faced with an unseen enemy which largely deprived us of human interaction and the need to be together with friends and family we turned to new ways to communicate. During the initial lockdowns we shifted to digital platforms such as national portals, mobile apps and social media, which helped accelerate the spread of information.
Keeping the nation informed
South Africans were also able to watch live streams of press briefings and announcements by government on the Government Facebook page. We also ensured that we broadcast live most media briefings to community radio stations that reached far-flung rural areas in the country.
From the onset of the pandemic we were determined to keep people informed at all times, and President Cyril Ramaphosa took the lead in addressing the nation, in what came to be affectionately known as ‘family meetings”.
Our regular “family meetings” where President Cyril Ramaphosa updated the nation on the latest developments, were followed by newly released alert levels and regulations by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), while various cabinet ministers also provided updates on their area of influence.
Cabinet took the lead in ensuring that the new regulations were implemented and provided regular updates to the nation on our progress and challenges. By following such an integrated approach, which cascaded down to all spheres of government, we were able to safeguard the health of our nation and protect our economic and social wellbeing.
As the restrictions were gradually eased, government was able to turn to Public Service Announcements. Loud hailing was a core activity undertaken by the GCIS district offices in partnership with other spheres of government and agencies.
Activations in partnership with key stakeholders, ward councillors, law enforcement agencies, traditional leaders, health professionals were undertaken by the GCIS provincial offices. GCIS has also been leading drop-and-go activations at taxi ranks, malls and fuel stations to raise awareness.
Power of partnerships
Our entire thrust in this unprecedented period has been to leverage the power of partnerships across society. This included multiple partners from inside government working alongside a multitude of social, community faith based, organised labour and community based organisations.
This united front ensured a mixture of combined and mass communication initiatives, which leveraged off each other and complemented the various self-driven campaigns initiated by us and our partners.
From the very start we sought to bring together various sectors to from a comprehensive national communications partnership encompassing many partners and sectors, including the Solidarity Fund, Business for South Africa, the organised Trade Union Movement, the Community Constituency Front, and many others.
Throughout this period we leaned heavily on our partners in the media, and we used news outlets to communicate daily updates on lockdown measures, changes in policy, government interventions as well as government responses to rising infections and measures being implemented by the Department of Health.
Television was used to broadcast messages regarding strategic decisions, reminders, and information regarding health facilities, statistics and most notably lockdown procedures.
As we entered the second year of the pandemic in 2021, renewed hope was sweeping the globe with the news of the availability of lifesaving vaccines. Our government moved swiftly to obtain lifesaving vaccines for our nation and we adopted a phased and targeted vaccination approach.
Our communication has continually emphasised how vaccines save lives, and protect against severe illness, hospitalisation and death. We also constantly communicate that vaccines are freely available and accessible even without an appointment at your local vaccination centre.
Pushing vaccine message
We also constantly encourage people to vaccinate by emphasising that we are all in this together. This goes along with combatting harmful vaccine myths, addressing concerns related to the safety of vaccines and potential side effects, as well as getting more men to vaccinate.
Our regular Vooma Vaccination Weekends and campaigns such as KeReady have succeeded in driving higher vaccination numbers, especially amongst younger people.
Over 33 million vaccine doses have been administered and nearly half of our adult population are now fully vaccinated. In the vulnerable age group of 50 and above close to 70 percent are now fully vaccinated. These numbers are encouraging and show that our call to action has largely resonated.
Of course there are still many who are yet to vaccinate and there are some who don’t want to vaccinate due to various reasons. Going forward our focus will remain on getting more young people to vaccinate, targeting men and vulnerable populations.
We will do so by continuing to build on our many partnerships and collaborations, and by redoubling efforts to vaccinate over 70% of the target population. Now more than ever we need everyone on board, by working together we can strengthen the call to vaccinate and reach out to those who have not yet done so.
Our history has proven that we are unstoppable when united by a common sense of purpose. Let us therefore move forward together. We have never stopped learning during these past two years and we remain determined to continue doing so together with our many partners, and informed by science and the need to save lives and livelihoods.
Michael Currin is deputy director-general at Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).
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