Covid-19 reporting: When half a loaf is worse than no bread

Friday April 3 2020



Odoobo C. Bichachi

Odoobo C. Bichachi 

By Odoobo C. Bichachi

The Ministry of Health and the media – mainstream and social media – have the attention of every Ugandan during this difficult time as the country fights to stave off the deadly coronavirus disease.
Thus, apart from the presidential address that has come to punctuate our evenings, the Health ministry’s updates on the number of positive cases registered so far and media’s transmission of that information is what Ugandans wait with bated breath.

It is easy to explain; these numbers are an indicator of whether we are winning or losing the fight against the virus. The Ministry of Health has indeed continued to share updates through its late night tweets. These tweets are usually picked up by online media and shared widely. As a result, every morning, Ugandans wake up to disturbing new statistics, heightening their anxiety.

For example, on Sunday night, Ministry of Health tweeted as follows: “3 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed today Sunday 29, March 2020. Total number of confirmed cases stands at 33 in Uganda. Out of 206 samples run today, 203 samples tested negative for Covid-19.”
Earlier on Saturday, the Health minister herself, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, had tweeted: “Today, we tested 225 samples for Covid-19 and 218 tested negative. However, 7 tested positive for Covid-19. This brings the total to 30 confirmed cases. This battle, we can win if we adhere to the @MinofHealthUG preventive measures and guidelines. God bless you.”

Ministry of Health had minutes earlier tweeted the same information in more or less the same wording. The previous day, the ministry had tweeted as follows: “5 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed bringing the total to 23 cases in Uganda. Out of 227 samples run today at @UVRlug, 222 samples tested negative for Covid-19. Details will follow in a press release to be issued in the morning.”
While the Ministry of Health should be commended for timely sharing of information, and the online media for promptly disseminating it, the problem is, it is half information and without context! A few more details often come several hours later in a press release or a press conference by the minister. Yes Twitter has a limit on the characters one can write, which means it is not the most suitable way of breaking this information.

It should perhaps be used as a secondary platform after a detailed press release has been made, not the other way round.
Tweeting Covid-19 figures would not be a problem if we were simply updating sports league tables. The problem is this is information about a pandemic affecting people so if it is not complete, then it better not be shared at that point or else it will only create anxiety. Even US President Donald Trump who runs government on Twitter, has reduced on his tweeting on Covid-19!
The questions many Ugandans have been asking themselves whenever they read the Ministry of Health tweets are: Where are the tested samples from? Are they from the community, people who have gone to hospital, those under quarantine, etc? Where are those that have tested positive? If they are in hospital, in what condition are they? How are our medical teams coping? And many more!

Much of this information has been lacking in the communication from the ministry. Do the media take some blame for merely reporting the statistics and not prodding the ministry for context to make sense to the readers? Yes, it does. But like they say, it takes two to tango and in this case, it takes the media and Ministry of Health to give the public useful information.
Thus the Ministry of Health communication team should share sufficient information for the public to make sense of the statistics and the media should demand more information beyond tweets to be able to construct stories that give the public a full picture of the situation, not half or hazy picture. Half a loaf is not always better than having no bread at all!

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To show how the public are frustrated by the half information they are being fed on, one reader sent me the following note:
“Media houses always do follow ups on minor issues in Uganda, how come they haven’t even interviewed at least doctors treating these people. We need to know how they are faring in hospitals so that Ugandans should know how this virus heals.”
This reader and many like him, will only be satisfied when the Ministry of Health stops being economical with information and when the media goes beyond merely replicating the half information shared by the bureaucrats in the dead of the night. Both can do better!

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