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Voices From Africa: The Challenges of Covering COVID-19

FILE - A woman opens her mouth so that a health worker can collect a sample for coronavirus testing at Lenasia South, south Johannesburg, South Africa, April 21, 2020.

After a slow start, the coronavirus pandemic is picking up speed across Africa with more than 37,000 reported cases. Like elsewhere in the world, it has forced drastic behavioral changes and wreaked havoc on economies and jobs. But COVID-19 threatens to be particularly devastating on a continent battling poverty, weak health infrastructure, conflict and a spate of other deadly diseases.

For African journalists, this means big stories to cover — but also big challenges. Voice of America is featuring three of them, and their thoughts about covering COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Covering two conflicts in Burkina Faso: Kalidou Sy, France 24

As the Burkina Faso correspondent for international TV channel France 24, Kalidou Sy is no stranger to covering crises. The country’s escalating fight against Islamist terrorism is regular story fare.

Now he has shifted his attention to this newest threat. Instead of protecting himself against attacks, he’s equipped with masks, gloves and disinfectant gel.

FILE - Kalidou Sy, France 24 correspondent in Burkina Faso, is pictured during pre-coronavirus days. (Courtesy of Kalidou Sy)
FILE - Kalidou Sy, France 24 correspondent in Burkina Faso, is pictured during pre-coronavirus days. (Courtesy of Kalidou Sy)

“Both are dangerous subjects to cover, so you prepare before going out,” Sy said, adding that his conflict experience helps him cover COVID-19. “You do your homework on the area you’re going, decide the people you’re going to interview ahead of time. You do the maximum preparation to be efficient on the ground.”

As of Saturday afternoon EDT, Burkina Faso had 641 confirmed coronavirus cases and 43 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard. It’s a tally higher than those of many other sub-Saharan African countries, but dwarfed by those from such nations as Djibouti, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa.

The coronavirus is straining an already weak health infrastructure, and further threatening access to education in a country where jihadi attacks have shuttered hundreds of schools.

And it has pushed out other important news stories.

Terrorism persists

“The terrorism and attacks continue,” Sy said. ‘But it’s no longer a priority, and we have less access to information.”

Sy himself is self-isolating, venturing from his home only for work or shopping. He opts for Skype interviews only as a last resort, preferring coverage in the field, although he avoids large crowds.

One plus: Interviewing people has become much easier, he said, especially since the country eased lockdown rules last week.

“It’s difficult to find witnesses willing to speak to you when you report on terrorism,” Sy said. “That’s not the case with coronavirus. People talk about it very easily."

“They’ve experienced terrorism and poverty,” he added. “They take coronavirus seriously, but it’s not going to stop them living their lives.”

Poverty and press freedom threats in Zimbabwe: Thomas Sithole, Zimbabwe Center for Media and Information Literacy

The coronavirus has turned Thomas Sithole into a refugee of sorts. In Kampala for a conference in late March, the Zimbabwean journalist found himself unable to return home after Uganda imposed a lockdown that continues to this day.

Even so, he is covering the news back home, working with a team of citizen-journalists on the ground.

Zimbabwean journalist Thomas Sithole, right, with one of his reporters. (Courtesy of Thomas Sithole)
Zimbabwean journalist Thomas Sithole, right, with one of his reporters. (Courtesy of Thomas Sithole)

“We’re focusing on how ordinary people struggle to survive,” said Sithole, executive director of a Harare-based nonprofit that operates an online news site. “It’s really affecting local communities. Basic goods like rice, fuel and mealie meal [a type of corn meal] are in short supply.”

So far, Zimbabwe has reported just 40 coronavirus cases and three deaths, although experts fear limited testing masks a far higher number.

The infection follows a devastating 2019 drought and cyclone. Humanitarians warn the pandemic may deepen an already serious food and economic crisis. Zimbabwe’s lockdown, imposed in mid-March, means many people cannot earn a living in a country where seven in 10 live in poverty. The United Nations estimates nearly 8 million people will need food aid this year.

“You remain at home and die from hunger,” Sithole said, summing up what he called a Catch-22 for many Zimbabweans. “Or you go out and you risk contracting the virus.”

His group of reporters covers these and other stories from their communities, sometimes by phone, but often by pulling out a microphone and heading out.

“It’s quite a challenge given the shortage of personal protective equipment,” Sithole said, although the journalists try to observe basic precautions like using masks and sanitizers.

Uncooperative officials

Getting information from the government is another challenge.

“Government authorities and experts are not easily reachable by phone and many a time they ignore calls and messages” from independent media like his own, Sithole said. In some cases, he said, authorities are the source of fake news.

Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has accused Zimbabwe of being “Africa’s biggest press freedom violator” in connection with the coronavirus pandemic, with several arrests of journalists in recent weeks. In mid-April, Zimbabwe’s high court ordered police to cease harassing journalists, following a petition from a local media rights group.

“Now our reporters can move around and interview people and sources,” Sithole said. ”But it was difficult at the beginning, with some spending time in prison or detained.”

Assessing a post-pandemic Africa: Moise Mounkoro, co-founder of Upendo media site

While many African reporters are covering the daily maelstrom of COVID-19, Mali-born Moise Mounkoro and his media team are focusing long term. It’s a decision partly driven by necessity, as their online website Upendo won’t be launched for another few weeks.

“We’re concentrating more on feature stories that will last,” said Mounkoro, a former deputy editor for French TV channel Canal Plus Afrique.

Paris-based Malian journalist Moise Mounkoro works on stories for his new online website. (Courtesy of Moise Mounkoro)
Paris-based Malian journalist Moise Mounkoro works on stories for his new online website. (Courtesy of Moise Mounkoro)

On a recent day he was interviewing leading African experts and businessmen on the fallout of COVID-19 and how the continent can rebound. The videos and podcasts to be streamed on Upendo will target a young audience.

Based in Paris, Mounkoro covers his stories remotely, using the internet and his smartphone for his reporting. There are few precautions to take, unless he heads out to snap photos of a locked-down French capital.

He tunes into webinars for expert insight on the crisis, scouring Facebook and Twitter for story ideas and the fake news that’s trending. He makes calls to Africa to cross-check and dig further.

“In many African countries, governments don’t want to publish news that’s not coming from them” about the pandemic, Mounkoro said, ticking off several accused by media watchdog groups of press freedom violations in recent weeks. He fears they will only become worse.

Digging for news

But he also pushes African colleagues to go beyond the official news.

"Generally, journalists in Africa face the same problem as those in the U.S. and France,” Mounkoro said. “Do you just swallow what the government says, or do you dig for the news?”

Like France 24’s Sy, Mounkoro is worried about the many stories that go unreported in Africa these days.

“We’re no longer covering the big wars in Mali and elsewhere,” Mounkoro said. “We’re just focused on COVID-19, and that’s a big problem for me. I think we also need to focus on these other issues, even if COVID-19 is a big one.”