Faced with the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic, the Cameroonian government issued a press release announcing its measures on 17 March 2020. These measures are finalized after a month and a half of waiting. They follow a communication from the Minister of Health, Dr Manaouda Malachie difficult to identify at first and then informative over the days. Despite tweets, reactivity, media appearances and the establishment of a toll-free number in case of contamination by Covid-19, the minister’s communication on his personal account did not totally reassure Cameroonians on the management of the health crisis. The counting of the number of Covid-19 cases, the call for vigilance, the information on the evolution of the pandemic in the countries where Covid-19 is present and the entry into Cameroonian territory of the populations of these outbreaks have created an anxiety-provoking situation among the populations present on the socio-digital media and show a lack of awareness of the populations who do not have access to these channels of communication. 

Following this press release which is intended to appease the doubts of Cameroonians for an evening, the State officially recognizes the Coronavirus as a high-risk pandemic. In the era of doubt and fragmented information, our goal in this article is to provide angles of improvement on the continuity of crisis management and communication of the Cameroonian authorities through different issues.

Issue of Public Crisis Communication:

Public communication is a “democratic pact” between public authorities (State, local authorities, public companies) and citizens. In times of crisis, this pact is under threat and the public authorities have the task of maintaining it and reconnecting it with the citizen through effective public crisis communication. 

In the context of this health crisis, the State as a public authority and Cameroonians as citizens have a common enemy which is the ”coronavirus”. In this fight against the virus, the two must be united to eradicate their common detractor. For this to happen, there must be a response to the strong expectations of the citizen by the State: concrete and effective measures of the health system and transparency in information.

Following the 13 measures announced in the press release of the Cameroonian Prime Minister’s Office, the State must rely on another public body to reinforce its message: local authorities, town halls. This health crisis, shows us that the challenge of crisis communication by the State is beyond social networks (specifically Twitter and Facebook) and the web. There must be coherence and perfect articulation between government communication and town halls. This will require the setting up of crisis units and a communication strategy on the health crisis. Through active monitoring and follow-up, these cells will be led to update their messages and actions towards the population: parents, vulnerable people, children.

Accompanied by public enterprises, the State and local authorities set up a communication of popularization through various channels: posters, leaflets, toll-free numbers with content in French, English and local languages of Cameroon on the knowledge of the virus, barrier gestures, reliable sources of information disseminated in local shops, local media, billboards. 

The public communication of crisis has for stakes to sensitize, reassure and make responsible the population in front of the danger of Covid-19.

Health issues:

Cameroonians’ mistrust of the health system is real and intensifies in situations of extreme emergency. An attentive social listening helps to identify common fears about the material resources of hospitals and the skills of health care personnel. Good crisis communication needs to be reassuring and empathetic, so its upstream management must be anticipated and prepared. Who better than a doctor, a professor in virology or an epidemiologist to respond to the concerns of Cameroonians: “Can one be contaminated several times by Covid-19?”. “what are the first steps to take when you develop symptoms of covid-19?” “How’s the takeover going?” “Are Cameroonian doctors competent to deal with a health pandemic?” 

We observe caring caregivers who provide elements of answers to their subscribers’ questions. These answers are not enough in times of crisis. The health corps must be invited on television and radio stations and in official accounts to evangelize on good practices, eradicate preconceived ideas and make each Cameroonian understand that the danger is invisible but very real.  They must be integrated into the medical language of government officials to popularize the risks of the virus and its mutations. Sending 25 million Cameroonians back to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website is not a sufficient communication channel to identify the extent and damage of the risks incurred.

So many unanswered questions that give rise to rumours and suspicions. Speaking out with clear and concise content on this subject through flat presentations, live interviews, tweets on previously identified doctors’ accounts will help reassure citizens and create a climate of trust with healthcare personnel. Furthermore, the health issue between the government, doctors and scientists will bring out a crisis management coordinated with professionals in the medical sector.

Political crisis communication issue:

Preserving image and reputation is one of the challenges of political communication in times of crisis. Lack of response or late response by leaders is seen as an attempt to neglect, conceal or fail to manage the situation by public opinion. 

To remedy this, the state must create and disseminate brief and rational messages on barrier gestures and precautionary measures. The State can therefore reuse the measures used in the press release in short messages in video spots, audio, computer graphics mixing text and images understandable by both adults and children. SMS pushs in partnership with telecommunication companies are also to be sent to all families to call them on the Covid-19. These contents should be reused in all private companies in Cameroon in addition to traditional media, social media and public spaces. Moreover, in its flat interventions, the Cameroonian government can give answers in 3 points :

For example: 

What you know: ”Currently 10 cases of Covid-19 have been detected and are being treated by health workers in the city of Yaounde…”.

What is in progress: ”We are waiting for the reports from the medical teams concerning the plane that landed on Tuesday March 17 in the airports of Yaounde and Douala from Paris. If you know of anyone with symptoms of Covid-19, encourage them to contact the toll free number 1510 to protect them and subsequently protect yourself.”

The next deadlines: ”We will come back to you tomorrow in the late afternoon when we will have received more figures following the analyses”.

Political communication is scrutinised, dissected and analysed all the more in crisis communication. Good crisis management is a mixture of empathy, honesty, expertise and dedication. A good message is a short message accentuated by repetition, the mother of learning. Political crisis communication must reinforce the role of the protective state to empower the citizen by placing the fundamentals of politics at the centre: the general interest (fight against the coronavirus pandemic), the interest of each individual (protect against the coronavirus), the protection of all. The political communication on the crisis must also clarify the measures announced: “Why close down drinking establishments, restaurants and places of entertainment at 6 p.m.” “What will be the economic and financial impact of cancelling the events” . 

The Covid-19 health crisis highlights the importance of anticipation, risk mapping in crisis management, messages and communication channels. 

How will the healing phase of this crisis unfold for the Cameroonian population? What will be the communication balance sheets for the government in the post-crisis period? 

                                                                                      Par Elodie MBIDA