Esther A.N. Cobbah’s thoughts … Family communication – A weapon against COVID-19

Esther Cobbah

Our Ghanaian and African communal traditions make the family context an important setting for dealing with the COVID -19 situation.  “I am because you are, you are because i am” — “UBUNTU” (in Swahili) is deeply meaningful to us and must be called into play at this time. Families, both nuclear and extended, need to communicate openly about COVID-19, what it is, how it spreads and how the family unit could be a major channel for the spread as well as how the family unit can be used to combat the pandemic.

Family meetings and discussions are very much needed in the current circumstances as part of the national effort to combat the pandemic. Information shared in such close settings is vital for contact tracing and uncovering and managing community transmission. That is also the context to confront stigmatization.

Having a family meeting may be considered “formal”, but it is really not in the Ghanaian/ African context. It is, indeed, a regular practice when there are serious family issues such as a death in the family or the need to rally round and provide care for a family member who is unwell.

A Paradox

Calling on families to meet in the context of COVID -19 is itself a statement about the seriousness of COVID -19 and the danger that it poses to the family. It is also a way of instilling ownership of the fight against COVID -19 among families collectively and individuals. This family context and our oral tradition combine powerfully to achieve the needed impact with regards to the messages about COVID -19.

The family will need to confront the paradox of having to enforce social distancing when normally this is the context for close physical interaction, with handshakes, hugs, eating from the same bowl, drinking from the same cup etc.

The communication professional can contribute to the effectiveness of this family context by helping distill the public health messages that are announced by the authorities – which may seem somewhat distant – into day-to-day behaviours and practices that engage attention in such family discussions.

This is why Stratcomm Africa is developing communication material with easy-to-digest messages for such community and family conversations. ‘The Adventures of KOO the COVID Prefect’ is one such material.

Communal Engagement

So, what should families do at this time?

    1. Recognize the threat that COVID – 19 poses to the family and constitute a force together against COVID – 19.
    2. Sit together (observing social distancing) and bring into the family information pool knowledge gained about COVID-19
    3. Educate each other about COVID -19:
              • What it is, how it spreads — Currently it is said to spread through human contact such as handshakes and hugging. It can also be transmitted through touching surfaces such as door handles and other surfaces which have been contaminated by the virus, and through droplets from speaking, singing, coughing and sneezing. Each family knows its context and should determine the potential risks in its particular situation.
              • What a serious global pandemic it is with major impacts throughout the world — over 2 million people infected with over 112,469 deaths in the United States of America alone, and over 2.1 million infected in Europe with over 179,078 deaths as of 8th June 2020. Here in Ghana we see the figures rising very rapidly in recent days. We now have 9,638 confirmed cases with 44 deaths as of 8th June, 2020. The seriousness of the pandemic is being expressed by doctors and other health care workers as they struggle to understand fully and cope with the crisis that has been overwhelming so many hospitals and health care facilities throughout the world. There have been distressing accounts of loved ones dying with no family members allowed to come close in their dying moments. At best, a few have managed phone or video calls with family in their last moments!

4. Families must, together, understand, appreciate and enforce the guidelines about washing hands, using sanitizers, wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing as critical for family survival.

Effectively and continuously applying these guidelines in the family context could be difficult, but consider that it could be more difficult being infected and quarantined, separated from family that you love whether in hospital or even at home.

Sharing information

All this is what makes the family context a critical one for communication about COVID -19. Through such communication, members of the family can fully consider the reality of their particular contexts, including sharing information about a family member who has been infected or who has been in contact with an infected person. Any member of the family could be infected and may be unaware of it.

Family members need to make each other regularly aware of where they go and what interactions they have. The family context is where compassion and help for those infected should be expressed to prevent stigma and discrimination, which could result in undisclosed infections and in turn can lead to extensive spread of the virus. The family context is where support is needed to encourage and ensure that family members who have to self-isolate or be quarantined at home, stay compliant for the good of all.

Family Contract

Thus, in Ghana/Africa, instead of the communal way of life becoming a pathway for the spread of COVID 19, the family context can be mobilized for deepening the commitment to compliance with the guidelines. There needs to be special attention paid to communication with children about COVID- 19 and the associated preventive guidelines. The whole family is thus going to be involved in ensuring compliance with the guidelines for keeping safe and staying healthy. Let us see this as a ‘family contract’ to protect each other, support each other, hold each other to account and stand together to overcome in this period of crisis.

>>>The writer is the Chief Executive Officer, Strategic Communications Africa Ltd. (Stratcomm Africa) #stayinformedstaysafe  #stratcommafrica

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