This feature argues rebounding COVID-19 cases and deaths in Zambia highlight the role and importance of the National COVID-19 Task Force (CoTAF), which should lead a national health system of innovation to curb the reach and spread of the diseases. Currently, what is characterised as COVID-19 task force (somewhat comprising the Minister and a few officials from the Zambia National Health Institute) is – so far – has not led a national science of innovation and research into curbing the pandemic or at least understanding its dynamics in so far as Zambia is concerned. This is therefore a clarion call on the Government to enhance support to the national task force and improve its reach, mandate and capacity. Only then can the country take necessarily national, sectoral and local steps for balancing health and socio-economic imperatives.
The pandemic is not only health related. This means the composition of the CoTAFshould be multidisciplinary, combining different professionals with different background. The Government should thus be clear the structure and organisation of the task force. What then should be the role of the reformulated National CoTAF? I isolate three among many elements I consider important:
1. Interrogate COVID-19 Statistics in Zambia
I wrote recently that ten countries in Africa account for about 70% of the total tests conducted so far – South Africa, Morocco, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana. Whilst Zambia does not feature here, it competes on cases and casualties.It is unclear why this is the case, opening gaps for speculation. In any crisis, speculations are dangerous. Two platforms for testing seem available in Zambia. The antibody test reveals if a person has already been exposed to an infection, by detecting antibodies in their blood or serum. Medical reports show antibody tests are not usually used to diagnose current infection (active disease or not) as it takes the body some time to produce antibodies. The argument is that a negative test result may occur if the test is taken too soon after infection before antibodies have been produced by the body. False positive test results could also occur due to cross-reactivity with antibodies present as a result of previous infection with other coronaviruses, raising the need for caution in interpretation of results. The second is an antigen test which points to detection of viral antigen particle in a sample, revealing if a person is currently infected with a pathogen but once the infection has gone, the antigen disappears. Again, it is argued accuracy can also be a problem, with antigen tests typically having a much lower sensitivity than Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Which confirmed cases are coming from which sources of testing is unclear in Zambia, more so with how results are being interpreted – from the medical perspective. More broadly, there is need to examine why Zambia has been on the rising COVID-19 trajectory.
2. The National CoTAF must Deal with Doubters of COVID-19
As with other pandemics, doubters of COVID-19 exist everywhere, bringing forth a new behavioural concept known as ‘covidiot’understood as “someone who ignores health advice about COVID-19, ignoring warnings regarding public health or safety. Basically, a covidiot doesn’t take COVID-19 and the risks of the virus seriously, despite what government officials and the global health community say. At the same time, they may also engage in selfish behaviour that doesn’t look out for the greater good when it comes to slowing down and stopping the spread of the coronavirus. In Zambia, there are many and exist at different levels.A strong message from the National CoTAF must address this carelessness and selfishness of some citizens, irrespective of their social standing. Politicians must lead the way and citizens must follow in terms of behavioural patterns.
3. Manage COVID-19 Crisis Communication
In a crisis, communication is everything.Crisis communication relates broadly to the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis. It also refers to the communication between the National CoTAF and stakeholders along with the public before, during and after the crisis. Crisis communication relates to management of issues, discussion of risk, and control of reputation.Currently, Zambians seem to contend with rumours and speculation, with various centres acting as sources of information. Such poor communication can lead to negativity, as opposed to solidarity and collaboration. We know we have a pandemic but the way these reports are made must be systematic, cautious and caring. There is need to centralise information source, and media houses should be linked to this official centre. This is a responsibility for all stakeholders to be cautious. The National CoTAF should not be narrowly reduced to merely reporting confirmed cases and deaths. It should rather extend its role to explore and share means through which the population can enhance their immunity and remain safe. COVI-19 messaging is crucial here.
Overall, the role and importance of the National CoTAF should be taken seriously by the Government, its support and mandate expanded in view of recent developments. The National CoTAF should lead a national health system of innovation to curb the reach and spread of the diseases. This proposed national science of innovation and research into curbing the pandemic or at least understanding its dynamics in Zambia should be driven by a multi-disciplinary team. I believe that only then can the country take necessarily national, sectoral and local steps that balance health and economic imperatives.
About the Author: Dr Simon Manda is a Senior Researcher for Trade and Development at the Centre for Trade Policy and Development and is a lecturer at the University of Zambia Department of Development Studies. He is also a visiting Research Fellow at Oregon State University.