As recently as last week, while the rest of the world was visibly reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic, I spoke to members of the Sierra Leonean business community who were convinced that the virus’s economic impact, if not the virus itself were going to pass Sierra Leone by. I hope they've been persuaded otherwise. The Guardian newspaper has described the Coronavirus pandemic as delivering “the fastest, deepest economic shock in history,” and as Andrew Keili wrote in his recent column, “the economic consequences of this new war- whether or not the virus breaches our shores are bound to be with us for quite a while-after all we live in a global economy.” The online one-stop hub of coronavirus-related information that we at Insight Magazine are putting together for the Sierra Leonean business community can’t possibly prevent what is coming, but it can certainly help businesses prepare and manage both practically and to some extent financially. Frustratingly and rather worrying, considering that the country is surrounded on both sides now by the virus, and our Government is putting policies and procedures in place, there is very little Sierra Leone specific information on Coronavirus publicly and easily available. The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that effective communications has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis. Yet not one of our key MDAs – had information on their Covid-19 response on their websites - not the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Information or the Ministry of Information and Communication. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation which should be leading on information provision has not been updated since the last government. In fact, it has information on how to prevent Ebola, but none on how to prevent Coronavirus. The State House Website, as always was the exception with both the President’s recent speeches available. Fortunately, these broadly cover the substance of Sierra Leone’s coronavirus response.
Social media should not be a substitute for the official website, however if I search Facebook, or dip into WhatsApp forums, I may find more information on the rules regarding the quarantine for incoming passengers; whether the airport lockdown includes cargo flights; what the situation is at the ports; what the protocol at the border is; whether markets can or cannot open etc etc. But I won’t know if what I’m reading is the most up-to-date information, or whether it is actually real or fake. To that latter point, a press release purportedly from the Ministry of Tourism was doing the rounds earlier this week. We are yet to record a case of Coronavirus but we are already into the territory of misinformation, disinformation and fake news. We could be standing on the threshold of a long and difficult period. Like everyone, I hope we are not. It is commendable that the Government has taken such a strong approach to prevention. As part of this response, the Government should already have in place a communications strategy which ensures access to timely and accurate information, if trust and credibility are to be built and sustained. Leave it too long and there will be a vacuum already filled with fake news. Managing an epidemic must be one of the most difficult things any leader has to do. Getting the communications strategy right from the outset will make our response to Covid-19 that much more likely to succeed. www.insight.sl