By Jossy Nkwocha
STRATEGIC communication remains a critical success factor or element of any human endeavour, issue or institution. Strategic communication is a well-planned and well-coordinated means of passing well-designed messages from an individual or institution to its identified stakeholders or general public at the right time, in the right quantity to achieve well-defined objectives.
Strategic communication, therefore, involves a carefully-planned and systematically delivered message with the purpose of creating a desired understanding, goodwill, support or behaviour for a particular course of action, policy or programme. Information is power, and must be used appropriately to achieve desired results.
My thesis or submission in this article is that there is acute need to apply strategic communication or effective information management in dealing with the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Nigeria; and indeed in all the countries where the disease has been reported.
For now, raw information, in my considered view, is just being dished out unprofessionally, insensitively, without weighing their implications and imports, sociologically and psychologically on the people and residents of Nigeria. What is flowing into the public space is unguarded, unprocessed information that has capacity to aggravate the sad situation we have found on our hands.
While CNN and the US health officials are dishing out positive information about how the two infected Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly’s and Nancy Writebol’s conditions have significantly improved after receiving a medication of an experimental drug, ZMap at the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta; their Nigerian counterparts are unmindfully reeling out frightening information about the number of Nigerian doctors and nurses that have been infected, how many persons are being quarantined or isolated, how there is no cure for Ebola, blab bla bla!
What exactly is the objective for this kind of information dissemination? Top government health officials have inadvertently engaged in much misinformation and outright poor information management about the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. There is the urge to rush to the press to announce something. Such unprofessional information (mis)management has only achieved widespread tension, fear and panic among health workers, immigration officers, airport and airline workers, family members of sick persons and the general public.
This would eventually degenerate into stigmatization of anyone who falls sick especially as the symptoms of EVD are same with those of common illness in Nigeria such as malaria, typhoid fever, diarrhea, etc. Very soon many clinics and hospitals may close down for fear of their personnel contracting the disease. Many bereaved persons may become afraid of burying their dead and leave the corpses to decompose in their homes.
Already, many people are no longer shaking people’s hands. I’m told that many medical personnel have started absenting themselves from work because of the fear of contracting Ebola.
Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Prof Onyebuchi Chukwu, gleefully announced that a Nigerian doctor who attended to late Sawyer has tested positive to the deadly EVD, and three other health workers have become symptomatic of the disease. Lagos State chapter chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association, Dr. Tope Ojo, equally announced that the matron of the hospital who also attended to Sawyer was showing symptoms of Ebola virus.
This kind of unprofessional information dissemination has heightened the apprehension about this Ebola epidemic. More worrisome is the fact that government is not saying anything about measures being taken to save the lives of those who have tested positive to the disease. We are only told how they are being isolated … to die or to recover! Have they tested our own bitter kola on them?
Such hopeless information has also impacted negatively on Nigeria’s image outside the country. Just last week, a South Korean university (Duksung Women’s University) rescinded an invitation for three Nigerians to attend an international conference it was co-hosting with the United Nations; and a group of South Korean medical volunteers called off a trip to West Africa amid growing concerns about the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
One of the misinformation already dished out about the Ebola disease is that it has no vaccine or drug; therefore, it is incurable; that anyone who contracts the disease will die. This is not exactly correct. A search at the website of the World Health Organisation, WHO, shows that many people have survived this disease in Liberia, Sierra-Leone and Guinea where the disease broke out about March this year.
According to WHO, as at July 23, 2014, a total of 1,201 cases of the disease and resultant 672 deaths had been recorded in the three West African countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), which gives a case fatality rate of 55-60 per cent. This statistics was updated on August 4, by WHO, showing more cases and more deaths, with one death of a Liberian, Mr Patrick Sawyer in Nigeria, but the fatality rate remained around 55 per cent.
Intensive support care
A WHO bulletin showed that many patients have survived the disease as a result of prompt medical care and intensive supportive care. According to WHO, the patients who are frequently dehydrated need intravenous fluids or oral rehydration with solutions that contain electrolytes. This is one piece of good news! Pray, when a government health official continues to emphasize that Ebola disease has no cure or vaccine, what does he intend to achieve with that message?
It is not surprising that during a recent visit to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Director-General of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, emphasized on the need to “improve information and communications systems in an effort to strengthen sensitization and promote community participation, taking into account cultural contexts.” Effective communication or proper information management is key to fighting the scourge of the Ebola epidemic.
We need to control or guard the dissemination of information about the disease. Government needs to upgrade its public enlightenment and education programme about how to prevent the spread of the disease; send those infected to the US hospital; provide needed laboratory facilities; provide appropriate testing facilities at entry points; and go the whole hug in researching the effectiveness or otherwise of our own bitter kola in providing the needed cure for this deadly Ebola disease. We need action and a message of hope.
•Dr. Jossy Nkwocha, fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), was the General Editor of Newswatch magazine. He is currently the head of corporate communications for a multinational company in Nigeria.