Reporting Covid-19 in Malawi: Trends and impact

By Malawian journalist Temwani Mgunda.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in late 2019, Malawian media have consistently featured reports on the pandemic, quite a gallant undertaking that has made what was once a relatively unknown disease to be fully understood by local audiences. The media have also, to some extent, thrived in inducing behaviour change as well as holding the government accountable on some sticky issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most of the early reports the local media carried were sourced from international media outlets such as the BBC and Reuters, among several others. It was not until around February 2020 that stories written by local journalists on Covid-19 started making headlines on a regular basis in the country’s media.

A critical look at the stories featured from January to around early September 2020 – sourced from some of the country’s prominent media platforms – reveals some distinct trends in terms of how the Covid-19 pandemic has been reported locally. Coverage started with the issuing of a firm warning to Malawians that there was a pandemic on the loose that originated in Wuhan, China. Apart from cautioning local citizenry about Covid-19, the stories in this category also focused on how to prevent the disease from entering Malawi. After this bunch of stories there followed the ‘scientific’ stories which concentrated on the health risks and medical facts about the pandemic; and then followed a third category of stories which can be loosely called socio-economic as they focused on the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, education, religion, arts and sports, among various other sectors. Lastly, to indicate that not all was gloom and doom, the local media also covered success stories that demonstrated triumphs over Covid-19.

Pandemic on the rampage

As already pointed out, most of the earlier stories on Covid-19 in the Malawian media were retrieved from international news sources. This might have been the case because in the absence of up-to-date medical knowledge on the coronavirus, local journalists could not produce well-informed Covid-19 stories. At this stage in the local coverage of the disease, the main aim of featuring stories sourced from the international media appeared to be to warn local audiences that there was a pandemic on the rampage out there.

Malawi’s two print dailies, The Nation and The Daily Times, feature international stories every day as they both have a page dedicated to world news. In the early stages of the local media’s coverage of Covid-19, the two carried such headlines as Chinese wild meat markets linked to Covid-19; Chinese coronavirus nurses cry for help; British nationals to be flown from China; and Guardiola’s mother dies with coronavirus, among many others. Similar stories were also accorded space in local electronic media news bulletins.

To amplify the message that a pandemic was on the rampage, Malawian media shifted from concentrating on stories linking the origin of Covid-19 to China to informing local audiences about the disease’s devastating impact on other countries. The death toll, courtesy of the coronavirus, in such countries as Italy, Spain and the USA became regular news in the local media, thus aptly warning local audiences that the disease was spreading to far-flung places.

The earlier local stories done by local journalists mainly focused on how Malawi can prevent the pandemic from crossing her borders as well as assessing the country’s preparedness in the event that Covid-19 finally hit home. A fine example of such stories is the one done by journalist Steve Zimba of Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS). Produced at a time when Malawi had not yet registered any Covid-19 cases while all her neighboring countries had confirmed cases, Zimba’s Special Report on Coronavirus engaged health commentators on Malawi’s capacity to deal with Covid-19 as it was only a matter of time before the pandemic hit the country.

But what might arguably have been the most outstanding story produced during this stage in the coverage of the pandemic by the local media is the one by The Nation, simply titled What Corona? It was a front-page story for the paper’s March 26, 2020 edition done collectively by a team of journalists who travelled to the country’s rural parts to establish how much the rural folk knew about Covid-19. In a way the story was a self-assessment exercise by the media in Malawi to verify the effectiveness of transmitting Covid-19 messages beyond the boundaries of the country’s towns and cities. And it turned out that, as of March 2020, most people in rural areas had little or no knowledge about the pandemic.  

Covid-19 is here

According to the UNICEF Malawi Covid-19 Situation Report, the first three Covid-19 cases were confirmed on April 2, 2020 in the capital city, Lilongwe. This was almost four months after the disease had already inflicted untold devastation across the world.

Now that the pandemic was finally here, local media responded by concentrating on reporting locally-generated Covid-19 stories in wave after wave. The majority of the stories published from around end-March and early April concentrated on providing local audiences with scientific or medical knowledge about the disease.

How the local media reacted once the country started registering Covid-19 cases was more or less in line with what the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends, i.e. when a pandemic strikes, the public needs to know more about the disease, its risks and ways to cope. Audiences should be provided with reliable information about risks and solutions so that they can observe health recommendations.

So after the international Covid-19 stories, it was now time for local reports to dominate the headlines with a focus on how to prevent contracting the disease, its signs and symptoms, and the recommended medical attention in the event that one contracts the disease. Such stories as Covid-19 risk rises by The Nation’s Enelles Nyale and Experts say cashless money handy during coronavirus lockdown by ZBS’ John Paul Kayuni were a timely warning for Malawians that Covid-19 is real and on how they should prevent contracting the disease, respectively.

There were also stories on the rise on the number of local Covid-19 cases and deaths. This was mostly the case following the then State President Peter Mutharika’s appointment of the Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19, which provided regular updates on the pandemic. The updates specifically highlighted the number of new cases, recoveries and deaths. These updates triggered such headlines as 6 new cases, Lilongwe most hit and Total number of people with coronavirus now at 52. Some stories narrowed down to the specific demographics such as Five healthcare workers test positive by Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Peter Makawa and Three confirmed Covid-19 cases at Dzaleka Refugee Camp by ZBS’ Aunyango Nkhoma.

There were, however, two notable problems with the Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 updates stories. The first was that, in the earlier stories, it was wrong for journalists to take the numbers of Covid-19 cases as being entirely accurate. Health communication experts advise that infection rates during a pandemic are likely going to be erroneous, especially in the beginning. In his seminal article, 10 tips for journalists covering Covid-19, Taylor Mulcahey observes that the Covid-19 pandemic has an estimated incubation period of up to 14 days, which means that it is possible for someone to contract the virus and not show any signs for two weeks. This, he asserts, leads to a lag in the number of registered Covid-19 cases. In subsequent reports by Malawian media, journalists seem to have realised the mistake and started using the expression ‘confirmed Covid-19 cases’ when reporting updates on the pandemic.

The second problem with stories on the Special Cabinet Committee updates was that the committee was a collection of politicians (i.e. cabinet ministers) while Covid-19 is a health matter and as such, according to the prescriptions of professional journalism, the information was supposed to come from health experts. It was thus problematic for Malawians to accept the numbers of new Covid-19 cases announced by the committee as some quarters, wrongly or rightly, believed the figures were deliberately inflated to justify Mutharika’s proposed lockdown, allegedly an attempt by Mutharika to postpone the fresh presidential election slated for 23 June 2020. It could be for this reason and others that the committee eventually evolved into an inclusive Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, co-headed by the Minister of Health and a medical doctor. 

Furthermore, local journalists kept track of new cases registered in some remote parts away from the country’s cities where, according to the Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 updates, the infection rate was apparently very high. For instance, The Daily Times’ Feston Malekezo published a story, Malawi records one more Covid-19 case, when Karonga District in the northern region registered its first case. Similar stories were reported when such districts as Nkhotakota and Chikwawa in the central and southern regions, respectively, registered their first Covid-19 cases.

Malawi never experienced what can be called a Covid-19 second wave but local media have been consistently checking the fluctuation of the rate of infections right from the country’s first three cases to the period when infections stretched to around 200 per day, before recently dropping to as low as four new infections per day. The alarming rise in infections was largely attributed to Malawians returning home from South Africa, the country worst hit by the pandemic in Africa. The Nation published a story, Local Covid-19 cases hit 336 (by Enelles Nyale),which indicated that the greater chunk of the new cases involved Malawians who were coming back from South Africa and truck drivers.

Covid-19 consequences

The hunt for a fresh angle on the local Covid-19 story led to local journalists delving into assessing the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on Malawian society. Malawi never had a total lockdown but some measures had been put in place to contain the spread of the virus.

Just as was the case globally, some of the measures negatively affected the country’s economy and citizens’ social life. On the economic front, the pandemic generated such headlines as Malawi cotton farmers to lose over K6 billion due to Covid-19 pandemic (by Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s Mirriam Kaliza); MRA collecting less in revenue amid Covid-19 (by ZBS’ Adams Undaninge) and Tourism catches Covid-19 cold (by The Nation’s Steve Chilundu).

To give a break to experts and politicians as commentators on the Covid-19 pandemic, local journalists started interviewing people from across the social strata. Chiefs, teachers, sex workers, religious leaders, students and several others had their voices now featured in the stories, especially on how the pandemic affected the country. In this pursuit for fresh voices on the Covid-19 narrative, journalists produced such articles as Covid-19 dampens Easter mood (by The Daily Times’ Rebecca Chimjeka); Covid-19 victims buried with no dignity (by The Nation’s Sellina Kainja); 40 girls fall pregnant every day in Mangochi (by The Daily Times’ Yohane Symon) and several other reports on sports and arts that aptly captured the pandemic’s devastating impact on the country’s socio-cultural life.

Triumph over Covid-19

According to WHO guidelines for reporting a pandemic, journalists are encouraged to report on the commendable jobs performed by health workers as well as tell stories of recovery and social achievements. The WHO is of the view that “such stories can give hope, raise spirits, and motivate people to carry on” amid the battle against a pandemic.

In line with the aforementioned recommendation, the Malawian media featured success stories that illustrated the country’s triumph over the Covid-19 pandemic. ZBS’ Gabriel Kamlomo’s story,Smiles as Covid-19 expectant mothers give birth and go home virus-free, is a case in point of documenting feats registered by healthcare workers at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe where two expectant women diagnosed with Covid-19 recovered and gave birth to healthy babies. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation also recently aired a story reporting that Mzuzu Central Hospital had recorded a 100 percent recovery rate for all Covid-19 patients that were admitted to the health facility. 

When one of the country’s notable politicians, Frank Mwenefumbo, recovered from Covid-19 it was a big story that was reported by almost all local media houses. Actually, Times Television went a step further by featuring a special programme on Mwenefumbo’s recovery. The Nation edition of July 30, 2020 also upped the game by devoting a full page to the story of a 17-year-old girl, Wongani Mulanga, who narrated her triumph over Covid-19. In the story, My victory over Covid-19, Mulanga shared her journey from contracting the disease to recovery.

From time to time, the media also reported efforts by various individuals, institutions and companies in the fight against the spread of the pandemic through, among other things, donating personal protective equipment to health facilities, prisons and schools.

Coverage impact

Health communication during a pandemic is a lot about creating awareness of the disease and, to some extent, instilling behavioural change among the general public if the spread of the disease is to be curtailed.

It is evident that the Malawian media played a laudable role in making local audiences become aware of the disease and follow recommended precautionary measures such as wearing masks and regularly washing hands with soap. Social and behaviour change communication specialist, Levi Manda, acknowledges that the local media, especially national radio stations, brought about substantial Covid-19 awareness among the public. In his study on awareness and perception of Covid-19 in Malawi’s Nkhata Bay district, Manda established that the media succeeded in making Malawians know more about Covid-19, its causative agent and the danger it poses.

However, it is disappointing to note that after months of covering the Covid-19 pandemic and warning the citizens to, among other measures, avoid crowded places, the scenario obtaining on the ground is as if the pandemic never happened. Drinking joints remain crammed while marketplaces still attract huge crowds.

Professor of epidemiology and public health at the College of Medicine of the University of Malawi, Adamson Muula, is of the view that for behavioural change to happen many players have to play a role. The media may have done their part but then there is the individual who must also do their part.

“The media have registered some successes, but there is more work yet to be done. One frustrating thing that we did not agree way back was to make universal use of face masks mandatory. But that needs national leadership and not just the media,” says Muula in an interview.

Prof Adamson Muula faults Malawian media for not being critical enough.

But he still faults the local media for largely being an awareness platform rather than being useful critics and analysts. The public health expert suggests that the media must ensure they hold accountable not only the government but also individuals.

“For instance, at some point, the media reported a shortage of testing kits in some parts of the country. The Ministry of Health assured the public that the problem had been solved and the media remained silent, not verifying whether this was correct or not,” Muula says.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, it should be acknowledged that local media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malawi has played a crucial role in, among other aspects, providing handy information, shaping perceptions and, in some ways, demanding responsible behaviour from citizens. However, the media have not been vigilant enough in holding the government accountable on some issues surrounding the pandemic.