In many ways, Africa has waged a successful battle against Covid-19. With under two million cases recorded on a continent of more than one billion people, the figures for Africa are lower than they are in Europe, Asia and the Americas. With 17% of the global population, Africa has accounted for just 5% of global confirmed cases and 3% of global Covid-19 deaths.
Political leaders and health officials have reason for confidence in the public health and social measures that have contributed to lower viral infection rates in Africa, but they must be prepared for the next battle they face: Covid fatigue.
Although many countries have seen widespread adherence to the 3Ws that have kept citizens safe — wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance — there are worrying signs that citizens are growing weary of the pandemic and relaxing their behaviour. In August, data published by the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to Covid-19 (PERC) showed that 85% of respondents said they had worn masks in the past week. But that figure is dropping. In Ghana, for example, a country globally celebrated for its creative fight against coronavirus, recent studies by the Ghana Health Service have shown that mask-wearing in markets has dropped to only 20%.
This is a time for people to remain vigilant, a message that health professionals and government leaders must reinforce. They now need to attune this message to the economic pressures on people, families and businesses. Africa is facing its first recession in 25 years, and Covid-19 could push up to 40-million people into extreme poverty. The pandemic has devastated livelihoods, with 70% of the population reporting a drop in household income. Food insecurity is affecting more than two-thirds of the population and many people prioritise earning money over social distancing.
There are signs that the population’s perception of personal risk is weakening, which could influence their willingness to adopt preventive behaviour. A recent survey by the PERC reported that although more than two-thirds of respondents believe that many of their compatriots would be affected by Covid-19, only 29% felt that they were personally at risk. With the highest caseload on the continent, South Africa is one exception. Nearly half of all participants there expressed concern about catching the virus.
Regardless of their perceptions of personal risk, the majority of Africans favour reopening the economy, while seven out of 10 feel anxious about resuming normal activities.
For national leaders, this tension offers an opportunity to provide renewed guidance to the public to fight Covid fatigue and encourage citizens to adopt Covid-safe ways of living and sustain Covid prevention behaviour. All countries should reintroduce the 3Ws and promote risk-reducing behaviour such as avoiding crowds and confined spaces as part of daily living and support people in adapting and being resilient.
Toward this end, public health organisation Vital Strategies and its Resolve to Save Lives initiative has just released a new toolkit, Living Covid Safe, which provides a template that governments and civil society organisations can use to wage their defence against Covid fatigue. The Ghana Health Service has already begun adapting these materials, using the fresh and engaging visuals to capture people’s attention and spark renewed commitment to wearing masks and other safe behaviour.
With print, digital and broadcasting assets on the dos and don’ts of safe behaviour in four languages (English, French, Portuguese and Swahili), the toolkit provides simple messages for best practices in daily situations, such as avoiding the busiest hours at the market, waiting for the next bus to avoid crowds, and conducting business outdoors as much as possible to stay away from confined spaces.
With Covid-19 fatigue growing amid a global surge of Covid-19 cases, it is a perfect time to renew public communications, build on the swell of supportive messages from politicians, celebrities and other people and also to correct misinformation that has crept into social media conversations. Before public opinion causes people to fully drop their guard against Covid-19 safety, government officials need to strengthen the narrative of virus prevention not only to keep the population safe, but to lay the groundwork for popular acceptance of a vaccine, once it becomes available.
Despite the region’s reputation for weak national health systems, Africa has waged a remarkable battle against this global scourge. But the war has not yet been won. It can be, with vigilance and renewed efforts to combat Covid-19 – one message at a time.