Africa’s investigative journalists are playing a critical role in unpacking the continent’s growing coronavirus pandemic, and holding responding governments to account.
Investigative stories have snapped some governments out of their early complacency on Covid-19 preparedness, while recent exposés have helped to prevent misuse of public funds on bogus treatments and scam contractors.
But recent signs of transmission spikes, ominous fatality projections from the World Health Organization (WHO), and worsening unemployment have raised concerns about the impact of the virus on the continent’s 55 nations.
In May, the WHO also warned of a potentially devastating loop where the virus could impact food security, with food scarcity in turn weakening people’s immune systems, and so making the virus more lethal. An added concern is the lack of health resources and widespread poverty across the continent.
With the stakes for the investigative journalism community in Africa high, four panelists shared strategies on how to tackle stories around the pandemic in The Threat to Africa, a GIJN webinar last week attended by 260 journalists from 57 countries.
The core message from the panel was clear: start with your familiar beats, keep your investigations simple, collaborate with peers, lean on scientists, and focus on people, even in hard science and data reporting.
Dayo Aiyetan, executive director of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) in Nigeria, said journalists in his country had a direct impact in mobilizing the government response, after discrediting early claims from the cabinet that “Nigeria is ready for the pandemic.”
“The situation improved because of (the coverage),” he said. “On government communications, there was an early signal from journalists that it couldn’t be business as usual.”
In the first week of April, ICIR compared the tiny, monthly US$13.64 hazard fee allocated to Nigerian doctors treating Covid-19 patients to the $460 and $825 sums paid to doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia, respectively, during the 2015 Ebola outbreak. The team also broke down a complex Covid-19 insurance provision for doctors in Ghana to find a current, apples-to-apples comparison figure of $361 in equivalent hazard fees. The story helped to trigger a five-fold increase in hazard pay for some Nigerian doctors just two weeks later, and illustrates the kind of simple, focused approach that Aiyetan said had proved effective early in the pandemic.
The consensus view from the webinar — the eighth English-language discussion in GIJN’s Investigating the Pandemic series — was that African reporters have done well in reacting to government responses in the past two months, especially in debunking stated falsehoods. But many are struggling to identify and nail down accountability stories beyond the daily news agenda.
Peter Mwesige, executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence, said that transparency and the explicit recognition of uncertainty in stories was essential for covering Covid-19 in Africa, both in terms of public trust and accuracy.
“This is still a developing story; there is uncertainty around figures, and even experts themselves don’t agree,” he said. “So we must acknowledge the uncertainty in our work, along with the facts we do know.”
In April, Mwesige and his team published a basket of Ideas list comprising scores of potential story angles for journalists in Africa, from impacts on agricultural supply chains to the role of religious figures. He said the list was produced partly so reporters could maximize their existing beats in covering the broader pandemic fallout, and partly to help journalists appreciate the countless consequences the pandemic may bring beyond the field of health.
“As media, we need more understanding of the architecture of response across different countries in Africa,” said Mwesige. “And we need to ask the same questions over and over again. And we need to follow the money — was it actually used for the purpose intended?”
This story was originally published by the Global Investigative Journalism Network