COVID-19: Unravelling the science in a crisis

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COVID-19 is challenging the way science communication is done in Africa. Copyright: Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

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[NAIROBI] Since COVID-19 became a pandemic in March, the world has been in a state of emergency, with the role of science communication during a crisis being brought into sharp focus.

In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus has led to the dominance of science news and analysis in the media.


But what lessons is the pandemic giving to science communication in Africa? How will this shape the future of science messaging in the continent?

“The politicisation of science, where politicians give updates even on technical matters while scientists play second fiddle, is unsettling to me.”

Gilbert Nakweya, Science journalist

These were some of the key questions that a webinar organised by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English edition last week (17 December) sought to answer.

Panellists and others in attendance agreed that that the outbreak of COVID-19 is challenging the way we communicate science in Africa.

“It was not easy to communicate COVID-19 as we were all learning about a new virus,” said Mercy Korir, a medical doctor who is now working as full-time health journalist for Kenya’s Standard Media Group.

According to Aisha Karim, a science journalist with South Africa-based Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, many journalists had little knowledge on how to unravel and communicate the science about the virus in an effective manner.

“Journalists were grappling with something complex with little training on how to unpack information for the general public,” Karim said.

She added that the tendency to simplify information on the pandemic led to the risk of missing key health issues that were important to the public and policymakers. Convincing the public that they faced a dynamic situation that even scientists were still learning about was a challenge in itself.

The panellists heaped praise on scientists in Africa for taking to social media as well as mainstream media, especially radio and television stations, to demystify issues to the public and share knowledge on continuing research.

According to the UN Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence, Global Pulse, online Coronavirus information has been shared and viewed 270 billion times in the 47 WHO Africa region countries between February and November this year.

Benjamin Gyampoh, a lecturer at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, told participants that social media has played a key role as a science communication channel but what is shared is insufficient and not an adequate representation of COVID-19 research across Africa.

Kogie Naidoo, head of treatment research in HIV and TB at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, said that communicating scientific research findings during a crisis is important, especially for policymakers and the general public.

But even more important is that science journalists covering a pandemic need to ensure responsible reporting through a rigorous fact-finding mission, she added.

Despite concerted efforts to communicate science during the pandemic, the politicisation of science, where politicians give updates even on technical matters while scientists play second fiddle, is unsettling to me. This, in my view, impedes effective science communication during the pandemic.

Also, uncertainty in science has been a challenge in communication during the pandemic, particularly at the initial stages. Earlier this year, some scientists were divided on whether the use of face masks by the public was advisable as a measure to curb the spread of the virus.

I could not agree more with Gyampoh, the founding editor-in-chief of the Scientific African journal of the Next Einstein Forum, that a strong relationship between the media, scientists and government officials is critical to effective science communication during a crisis.

With the world now anticipating mass COVID-19 vaccinations, accurate information about vaccines is crucial to boost acceptability and uptake to help conquer the virus.

However, science communicating should be sustained in Africa beyond the pandemic. This is a wake-up call for increased investment in science communicators by institutions such as higher education, governments and media groups across the region.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.