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Coronavirus: Community Knowledge and Perceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa

The pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV- 2), which was first announced in December 2019.There have no effective vaccines, so the actions or inactions people and their communities take to modify behaviour and mitigate spread are our only means of control a crucial common denominator that has had a significant impact on outbreak outcomes as far afield as from Wuhan to Milan and from Lagos to Los Angeles.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a paucity of knowledge on the role of risk perception in the adoption of public health interventions needed to control the spread of COVID 19 infections within communities. Limited human and material resources for infection control and lack of understanding or appreciation of the government of the realities of vulnerable populations have contributed to failed interventions to curb transmission, and further deepened inequalities.

From the start, the responses across many African countries have mirrored those of other countries where the pandemic has been most prevalent. These measures generally include the promotion of social distancing and personal hygiene, lockdown orders, and management of more severe cases in hospitals. Other responses, such as contact tracing, testing, and isolation of suspected cases, have been used less widely.

If the need to socially distant is the same everywhere, the best way to implement those practices is not. To get people to make commonsense decisions, follow the advice of experts and leaders, and embrace fundamental daily changes in their behaviours and routines, they must be effectively engaged on a community level.

However, preventive measures can be well implemented only if the population has good knowledge about the disease and its public health importance. With several cases already confirmed in sub-Saharan Africa, the government in addition to the WHO guidelines put in place a series of measures to prevent the spread of the infection. Among these measures are: closing of schools, closing of international borders, wearing of face masks, regular hand washing, use of hand sanitizers, creation of an emergency number and measures to prevent social contacts.

The gaps in our current knowledge of the course of COVID-19 in Africa make things even more difficult. To better understand the knowledge of the virus as it was beginning to spread in sub-Saharan Africa, GeoPoll deployed an SMS survey from March 10th-13th 2020 in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. This survey examined awareness levels, primary information sources, knowledge of how to prevent the virus, and levels of worry.

The study had a total sample size of 1,350 (450 per country) and was roughly nationally representative by location across each country. The sample had an even gender split and an age split of 33% ages 15-24, 35% ages 25-34, and 32% ages 35+ [Chart above]. Of the initial 1,350 respondents, 1275 (94%) were aware of the recent outbreak and continued to complete the remainder of the survey. This dataset is an example of rapid surveys conducted using mobile phones to get a snapshot of the on- the-ground situation and behavioural responses as things were unfolding.

The spread of misinformation about the virus has been a concern in several countries, including Kenya, states GeoPoll: Social media outlets, such as WhatsApp, have already been used to spread false information about remedies and travel restrictions. Social media was the most common primary source of information about COVID-19 among respondents [Chart above]. While, 75 percent of respondents, including those for whom social media was not a main source of information had seen information on WhatsApp regarding COVID-19. The majority of respondents described this information as “somewhat truthful”, suggesting that most respondents were sceptical of the quality of information distributed over WhatsApp.

There is still a knowledge gap in the sub-Saharan Africa population with respect to COVID-19. The population is aware of the disease and preventive measures, but few have taken steps to procure essential tools for the prevention. There is a need to intensify sensitization to fill the knowledge gap the population has with regards to COVID-19. An understanding of the factors influencing risk perception is needed to design appropriate risk communication strategies. Community engagement and reliance on local communication networks could promote mutual trust and increase the uptake of public-health interventions.

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