Containing COVID-19: Will Cameroon’s disenfranchised media reporting make or mar?

By Cameroonian journalist Joyce Mbong, first published in Journal du Cameroun.com.

Since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Africa in mid-February 2020, African countries have made significant strides in combating the virus, bolstering key response measures such as diagnosis, prevention, treatment, workforce training as well as supply of critical medical supplies and equipment.

In February 2020, only two laboratories in the World Health Organization (WHO) African region could diagnose a COVID-19 case. Currently 750 laboratories across the region can test for the virus. The increased diagnostic capacity has seen more than 10 million tests carried out over the past eight months. Crucially, testing has been decentralized in many countries.

COVID-19 exposed gaps in clinical care for patients in the early stages of the pandemic. A WHO assessment of countries in the African Region found that there were 0.26 functional mechanical ventilators per 100,000 people – almost 30 times lower than in some Western European countries. By August 2020, the number of ventilators had increased to 0.96 per 100,000 people. In April, there were about 13,000 beds for COVID-19 patients and by August these had increased to over 43,000.

In June 2020, assessments WHO conducted of more than 1,200 health facilities found that many health care workers were lacking skills in infection prevention and control, and how to keep themselves and their patients safe from the virus. WHO worked with many partners to provide training in infection prevention and control to more than 150,000 health workers.

Over the past four months, Africa has recorded a decline in new COVID-19 cases. However, countries need to remain vigilant, maintaining crucial public health measures to avert a potential explosion of cases.

Raising awareness of communities about COVID-19 remains a key pillar in promoting safety and preventing the spread of the virus. WHO and partners have mobilized more than 345,000 community health workers in the region, while local leaders and influencers are also being trained in 45 countries.

As the disease spreads, so too does potentially harmful misinformation and disinformation. With countries all around the world grappling to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the need for resilient, independent and accurate media is becoming increasingly apparent.

In February 2020, the WHO raised concerns about an infodemic caused by a flood of false and misleading information about COVID-19.

Kate Gunn of BBC Media Action points out that “during the COVID-19 health crisis, trusted, accurate and timely information can help communities prevent or reduce the spread of disease, and guide those affected towards services and treatment”.

The case of Cameroon

As of January 2021, Cameroon’s Ministry of  Health has reported 29,617 cases of infection, 28,085 recoveries and 462 deaths.

The country  remains eleventh in the list of countries with the highest number of positive cases in Africa. As of 30 October 2020, the case-fatality rate of the pandemic in Cameroon was 2%. Two weeks later, the case fatality rate was 1.9%. This decrease in the mortality rate country-wide suggests high recovery rates among infected people, despite new cases arising every day.

The East, Far-North and South regions have not reported any new positive cases among healthcare workers as of 1 November compared to the seven other regions that accumulated four new cases as of 11 November 2020. In general, the epidemiological curve tends to rise with an average of 549 cases per week compared to 223 cases per week in the preceding month. On 10 November 2020, the Governor of the West region, Awa Fonka Augustine, issued a press release on the exponential resurgence of COVID-19 positive cases in the region. He indicated that 34 new cases were reported within a week (from 4 to 11 November 2020), including five serious cases and two deaths. In the Littoral region, cases grew in schools among students and teachers in the city of Douala since reports from massive screenings in schools began to come in.

Prevention among students in schools appears to be a great concern because of overcrowded classrooms and insufficient or lack of preventive materials such as handwashing stations.

During the reporting period, 58 COVID-19 cases were reported among teachers and students – although fortunately with no deaths country-wide. WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF, along with health and education partners, continue to support schools in sensitizing teachers and students, training health staff and providing personal protective equipment, as well as infection prevention and control (IPC) material.

The Cameroon Ministry of Public Health has reinforced COVID-19 screenings for all travellers landing on Cameroonian soil. This requirement comes after a network of fake negative COVID-19 tests sold to travellers flying to Cameroon was dismantled. According to French and local media, this network comprised seven alleged counterfeiters from Benin and Cameroon living in France.

Murky government communication

When the first cases of Coronavirus were reported in Cameroon at the close of March 2020, President Paul Biya made an appeal for public solidarity to help the government support the healthcare system.

Dozens of people and companies immediately poured money into a fund hastily created by the president to support the emergency situation imposed by COVID-19. A total of US$40 million was raised.

Other contributions were received from civilians, companies, ministers, lawmakers and senior state functionaries.   Cameroon also received assistance to fight COVID-19 from foreign governments. The central African state said it received US$226 million in emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Other people contributed food with a local company handing to the government huge quantities of rice.

However, the government has managed both these funds in secrecy, obstructing the public’s ability to track public resources. Only after enormous public pressure, citing the “urgency of transparency,” did the government publish, on July 29 2020, some basic information in a two-page statement about how it spent about 22 billion FCA (US$40 million), which it said was its total expenditure, to respond  to COVID-19 in the preceding five months.

“The information provided is too general to allow for meaningful public oversight – saying only that, for example, 1.75 billion FCA (US$3 million)  went toward “rehabilitating, renovating, and extending” isolation areas in three hospitals in Yaoundé, the capital. The statement similarly provides a generic list of equipment to account for another 3.92 billion CFA (nearly US$8 million) attributed to “procurement of medical equipment distributed to facilities,” said Sarah Sadoun, Senior Researcher on Business and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch in an article in Le Monde Newspaper.

Watchdog groups such as the Association for the Integrated Development and Interactive Solidarity (ADISI), with its digital platform Data Cameroon, have also pointed out that the US$40 million does not account for all the funds the government received to support its COVID-19 response.

The Health Ministry statement included a list of about 65 individuals and companies who donated around 1 billion FCFA (US$1.8 million) to the President’s Solidarity Fund. But it didn’t make public any information specific to the fund’s revenues and disbursements, which appear not to be governed by any legislation. And the total sum the ministry says it spent is far smaller than the amount it received in international assistance for more than 43 COVID-19 projects, including US$100 million from the African Development Bank.

Tracking this money is about more than the government reciprocating public solidarity with accountable governance; it is key to ensuring funds crucial for fighting a pandemic are fully and fairly distributed across the country. Yet many hospitals remain woefully unprepared about one year  into the pandemic.

Cameroon’s Health Minister, Manaouda Malachie, says neither the funds nor the goods had been diverted. He said the Ministry of Health with the Ministries of Territorial Administration, Finance and Trade made sure food items were distributed to all hospitals with COVID-19 patients. He said some food was given to Cameroon’s 10 regional governors to distribute to families and communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

Manaouda insisted face masks, hand sanitizers, soap and buckets were shared to civilians, and protective kits for hospital staff members distributed in hospitals. He said independent control teams and solicitors were invited to follow up the process and render accounts in case there is need. Manouda said the government had spent more than US$40 million from the fund and from government contributions since March 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was reported. He did not mention how much has been contributed.

According to him, following requests by rights groups and civilians, Cameroon’s Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, has ordered an investigation into how the funds and material were used.

Will Cameroon’s disenfranchised media make or mar?

The final consequence of the public health crisis, and perhaps the most serious one for African journalism, is that the already fragile news ecosystem has never been so overwhelmed.

The spread of the virus has been matched by the proliferation of freedom of expression, but some governments have used censorship, arrests and the application of repressive laws to address challenges, especially the media and journalists, and to control public narratives about the crisis.

This is why the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that “media and social media companies must also contribute to the fight against misinformation related to the COVID-19 crisis. Journalists should report accurately and without bias, investigate propaganda campaigns and official discrimination, and make sure there is the right of correction and reply”.

Unfortunately, in Cameroon the media remains polarized and a deep dichotomy exists between state owned and private media entities, including access to resources to report in the crisis.

After the country reported its first cases in March 2020, government communication was limited to daily press conferences to announce the number of new cases and measures taken to curb the spread.

The state broadcaster, Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) and the state run Cameroon Tribune followed in this trend by only announcing daily cases of new infections in the country’s two official languages.

A  few messages on prevention measures were also broadcast in English and French over private TV Stations, including Equinox TV, Vision 4, S TV and other urban radio stations but community outlets remained completely excluded.

Due to lack of resources to continue reporting, private media organizations progressively abandoned active and participatory reporting on the crisis.

In Cameroon, 20 newspaper owners organized a “day without the press” on 4 May 2020 to call attention to the situation. Nine of the ten demands that led to the action focused on the sector’s economic fragility, worsened by the public health crisis and the absence of official support.

“With this public health crisis, the sustainability of media organizations becomes not only a major factor in the future of public debate and democratic societies but an indispensable condition for guaranteeing the right to information,” said Assane Diagne, director of Reporters Sans Frontier’s West Africa office.

The public health crisis poses an existential threat to independent information production in Africa. This calls for re-imagining the media ecosystem on a continent where public subsidies are too rare and where the web giants scoop up a great part of the revenue generated by journalism he concluded.

Aminateh Nkemngu, Founder of the Community Initiative for Development Communication, CODEC Cameroon, a community-based organization in the south west of the country explains that “we realized state owned media limited their reporting to announcing daily new infections with no extra effort to educate the masses on prevention measures. Coupled with the fact that CRTV signals do not reach millions of Cameroonians in rural areas and internet penetration remains extremely low, we noticed there was a dearth of information and a huge gap to fill as far as communicating on the crisis is concerned”.

He added, “that is how we reached out, sought and obtained support from Urgent Action Fund For Women Rights in Africa, and Internews Europe  to translate COVID-19 prevention messages from English and French to two local languages, Nweh and Mundani, to reach 30,000 people, mostly women and youth displaced by armed conflict in some parts of South West Cameroon who did not have access to information on the pandemic, no access to basic hygiene, including water, clean and safe toilet and health care services”.

To help the media give reliable information about the coronavirus pandemic, the US Embassy organized a series of virtual training sessions led by an experienced American journalist, Sarah Watcher. Close to 90 journalists benefited from this effort, learning about good practices in reporting on the disease such as how to differentiate between real and fake news, where to get reliable information on the disease, how to understand the statistics, and the risks associated with stigmatization of those affected and strategies to counter it.

A statement by the US Embassy said, “We believe that journalists play a vital role in halting the spread of the disease when they provide accurate and timely information to the public. The United States has been a key health partner for Africa and for Cameroon for many years.

“The United States has invested more than US$500 million towards public health in Cameroon. Out of more than US$250 million spent worldwide by the United States to fight COVID-19 in Africa, over US$20 million is being spent in Cameroon and US disease experts are working side-by-side with Cameroonian officials to support their response”.

Tarhyang Tabe, President of the Cameroon Association of Media Professionals (CAMP), describes his organization’s “Kill Coro With Better Tori” initiative.

Tabe says “the title of the campaign was coined from Pidgin English, widely used in rural settings as well as urban settlement in the English speaking regions of the country. It is also spoken in parts of the French regions which have been infiltrated by refugees or internally displaced persons as a result of the Anglophone crisis. It is loosely translated as “Stop the Spread of the Coronavirus through Effective Communication”.

They also set up a website and Facebook page to counter fake coronavirus related news, disinformation and misinformation. This page was managed by certified fact checkers and journalists who have been trained on detecting and reporting fake news and hate speech.

According to CAMP President, the idea was to provide the right information to the public especially online since urban and rural populations as well as displaced persons have access to online materials.

“We used known fact checking tools, expert’s views, official sources to give the right information to our online audience” he expounded. The project was sponsored by Internews under the Information Saves Lives: Rapid Response Fund.

Protecting journalists on the frontlines

Tarhyang Tabe, President of CAMP, holds that with the uncertainties that come with COVID-19, journalists are faced with challenges like inadequate basic equipment, transportation means, misinformation, risks of being infected in the line of duty and fear of fuelling panic in communities.

It is against this backdrop that CAMP launched a the COVID-19 Free Media Project #COVID19FreeMedia237 and embarked on partnering with local civil society organizations to provide hand washing points in community media houses and donate hand sanitizers, equipment covers and face masks to journalists.

“We also produced sensitization materials for use by community media broadcasters in local languages and more of demonstrations and less writings.

Posters demonstrating how to prevent the virus were produced and distributed in local communities, churches, village meetings and market squares.

Radio spots were also produced in local languages and Pidgin to be shared with community radios and networks of CSOs in local areas as well as internally displaced camps,” the executive director explained.

This targeted journalists in the line of reporting and aimed at constantly supplying masks and hand sanitizers to more media houses as well as purchase of covers for microphones, recording tools and communication airtime for editors and field reporters so they can conveniently work from home often than in the field.

On 18 April 2020 members of the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists, CAMASEJ Buea Chapter, stormed the streets, markets, motor parks, and hospital premises in the cosmopolitan city of Buea to sensitize the population on how to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The journalists, drawn from various radio and television stations, newspaper houses and online platforms in Buea came out in masse with focus creating awareness and reawakening the consciousness of the population of the Southwest Region, especially that of Buea in particular and also setting up the various wash hand points in markets, hospitals motor parks, streets and media houses.

A few months after this activity, the National bureau of the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists distributed face mask and hand sanitizers to journalists in the different chapters, explains the National President, Jude Viban.

Kunyui Ngonmenyui  noted that “at the peak of the outbreak of this pandemic we at Cameroon Tribune, the state bilingual daily, where the news gathering process was mostly done of phone and in some cases, asked the news sources to send us pictures of the event or activity. In situations where this didn’t work the reporters had to go on the field but while respecting the preventive measures such as putting on a face mask, social distancing and regular washing of hands with soap and running water”.

“When the first cases in Cameroon were declared in March 2020, we took precautionary measures by working remotely from home for at least five weeks.”

“When the decision was taken by hierarchy for us to return to office, strict measures were also put in place. Each member of staff was obliged to put on a face mask, there was a hand-washing point at the entrance of the office while each member of staff was entitled to a hand sanitizer. Unless very necessary, visit to the office by strangers were restricted.

Unless too important, coverage was restricted. We mostly conducted telephone and online interviews with sources,” Ajumane Francis of Le Journal du Cameroon explained.

“However, going to the field, I always had my face mask on and avoided gang interviews” he added.

With cases of the virus still being reported and huge allegations of corruption surrounding COVID-19 funds in Cameroon, the media remains largely sequestrated and disenfranchised especially on the question of a coordinated media response to the pandemic.