By Andrew Kaufa*
One thing the Covid-19 pandemic reminds me about is a conversation with a Jesuit friend on what Thomas MacMillan referred to as The 6 Handshake Rule or Fred Schepisis’s Science of 6 Degrees of Separation. According to these gentlemen, the word is probably smaller than we tend to think. This theory is proved by the fact that people tend to make statements which are connected to a chain of friends, in a maximum of six connections – a chain of a-friend-of-a-friend statements.
A few weeks ago, a Citizen TV journalist in Nairobi, Kenya, was randomly asking people whether they believed Covid-19 is real. Despite all the awareness campaign which the Ministry of Health has been making since March 2020, most of the interviewees confessed that they knew about the disease from the media but were yet convinced as they did not have a personal contact with a person who was Covid-19 positive.
A few who responded affirmatively were convinced that Covid-19 is real because they trusted the source. “I know it is real because a friend of a friend of a friend was diagnosed positive,” they would say. I too was in the same boat until last month, July 2020, when two my closest friends in Malawi succumbed to Covid-19 the disease.
Probably the greatest service the Church media could have done in the region was to raise awareness about the reality of the pandemic. For this reason, while many offices were closing down due to the pandemic, the Social Communications Department in the bishops’ conferences had to do more research on the pandemic to be in a position to be helpful to their Catholic radio and television stations.
A lot of information on Covid-19 pandemic is already available from non-governmental organizations such as Africa Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) Africa but also governmental institutions such as Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and at the global level from agencies such as the US Department of Health’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC). All these are inputting to the up-to-date Covid-19 data which the World Health Organization (WHO) is availing to all stakeholders through its website.
However, there was a role which the Church media, more especially the radio and television stations had to play, which can be broken down into three, namely:
To raise awareness not only about Covid-19 but also the emerging issues, highlighting the Catholic response which, according to the Vatican’s Dicastery of Integral Huan Development must emphasize faith, hope and love.
To mobilize people of good will to into works of mercy and charity while advocating for the promotion of the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of society.
To render psycho-social support through radio/ television based interactive programs where counselors, pastoral agents and listeners/ viewers come together to discuss the impact of the pandemic on their lives.
Working in collaboration
On raising awareness, the Catholic radio stations in Kenya owe a lot to the collaboration which exists with GIZ Kenya ’s Civil Peace Program and Kenya Community Media Network (KCOMNET. Through this collaboration, they received financial support and already made weekly radio programs social media posters whose content ranged from prevention; home based care for those on isolation and quarantine; the rights of the elderly; mental health for the health care providers and family members.
With regard to mercy and charity, diocesan radios stations aired appeal programs (and continue to do so) to raise money for charity outreach programs so that the pastoral agents could take care of the most affected such as those who lost their means of income, the elderly and the poor in general. Through these initiatives, people in the urban Archdioceses of Nyeri, Kisumu and Nairobi were able to take care of their vulnerable but also support the dioceses in rural areas.
Radio-based psycho-social support
Probably the most recent development has been the initiative to promote psycho-social support. While people have the opportunity to meet counselors one on one via phone and other platforms, the interactive radio programs are playing a very important role not only in Kenya but also in Tanzania and Malawi.
This is important for us to highlight because, unlike in in other parts of the world where one-on-one counselling is popular, most cultures in sub-Sahara African cultures are very communitarian. This makes group therapy through phone in radio and television programs and other interactive formats more powerful.
To underscore the importance of this initiative so far taken by Radio Maria and other Catholic radios in the region, one should imagine how the government measures to curb the spread of Coronavirus have disrupted people’s social life, causing a shocking effect on the society: the limitation of number of congregants in churches as well as the length of a prayer service; the limitation of movement of people within slums and between counties; the closure of schools and public places such as entertainment joints and market days; the dusk to dawn curfews.
Here, I concur with Easton Owino who, in his article published online by Devinit.0rg (June 2020) argued that in Kenya and probably many other African countries, fear of the disease is not so much exacerbated by the spread of infections, number of people succumbing to Covid-19 or the weak health infrastructure but rather the economic impact of all the above-mentioned measures. We are talking about people whose income through farming and other informal businesses on the streets and market places has been negatively affected by these precautionary government measures.
In fact, it is against this background that many other social challenges are emerging such as increases cases of robbery, gender-based violence in families; teen age pregnancies, and alcohol and substance abuse among the youths. We thank God that our Catholic bishops and other pastoral agents are doing everything possible to address them through the livestreamed Mass and other platforms.
The pandemic is far from over. There is need to encourage Church communicators who are making a significant contribution in this war and to urge those who are probably not that aggressive to start doing the same as the number of cases is still going high. Whether or not one agrees with The 6 Handshake Rule, it is a fact that as the number of Covid-19 cases has exceed 1 million on the African continent alone, people are beginning to accept that Covid-19 is real.
Obviously, how they are responding is yet another question for further discussion. Nevertheless, while the most notable contribution of the Catholic Church in the wake of Covid-19 and governments restrictions has been the livestreaming of liturgical celebrations through its radio and television stations’ social media platforms, the impact of these awareness and psycho-social support programs which are being aired to address the realities associated with the pandemic is unquestionable.
Pope Francis’s message for the 54th World Communication Day reminded about storytelling. In Africa, grandparents would tell stories not only to entertain their grandchildren but also to impart some cultural moral values.
In the context of Covid-19, it should be envisioned our Catholic radios taking this role by telling stories that remind the consumer about taking personal responsible and caring for others in a way that sustains people’s faith, gives them hope and urges them to works of mercy and charity. In this regard, the Catholic radio and television must continue to live up to this call by innovatively connecting the people and facilitating the faith sharing of their experiences as well as urging them to reach out in charity.
*Fr Kaufa is AMECEA Social Communications Coordinator. This article also appeared in SIGNIS Newsletter