It is Friday evening, at 10 pm. Our children whose bedtime has long passed are still playing in the background. This is when we, Alfred* and Beate** meet online to discuss our work. It is not the usual time for work meetings. But nothing is normal since the “world declared war on a virus”. The novel Coronavirus is all over the world now, and so is the war language that dominates the messages about the pandemic. In our conversation, we share our concerns about the way COVID-19 control is talked about and why we try to avoid the war language.
Beate: In the first weeks after the onset of COVID-19 in Kenya, I was overwhelmed by the frequency of news about the new pandemic and the constant exposure to bad news. Coronavirus made the headlines all over the world, with war language dominating the tone. People lost jobs and loved ones. Existing inequalities became visible. Global and national leaders used militaristic language to alert people about the scale of the problem and to call for compliance with control measures. I asked myself if that was helpful since the pandemic had caused already enough fear and uncertainty in communities, especially among vulnerable groups.
Alfred: At LVCT Health, we were aware of the fears and the importance of communication and language. Our Executive Director Dr. Lilian Otiso initiated discussions with all staff on the virus and measures to ensure our preparedness and continuation of services. One of her key messages has been ‘Do not Panic’, alongside accurate information about the virus and how it could be prevented. As myths and misconceptions spread within the communities, we established an internal discussion platform to educate ourselves and debunk myths with facts. We have also partnered with TV and Radio media houses including community radio stations to support communities in making sense of the pandemic, debunking myths and giving facts and sources for credible information.
Beate: I am surprised that community mobilization strategies also make use of war language. The novel coronavirus was declared the common enemy, and everyone was called to unite in the fight. Yet, people living with HIV and cancer have been talking about the risks of negative and dehumanising language, including war language, for years.
Alfred: As an HIV service provider organisation, we have learned that language matters. In the early days, HIV was called all sorts of names such as enemy, devil, monster, killer and so on, which increased stigma against the disease and those affected. Stigma and discrimination have remained as key barriers in addressing HIV in Kenya. While most people living with HIV would want to adhere to the medication, stigma around HIV infection makes them reluctant to disclose their status and makes it difficult to take their medication regularly. Something similar is happening with COVID-19. People who have recovered are avoided and ridiculed by others, stigma affects their mental health and wellbeing.
Beate: As much as language can unite people, it can cause division between people, especially when it frames a disease or a pandemic as a fight or war, which involves opposing forces, allies and the enemy. War language actually misses its intention of uniting people and stimulating joint action.
Alfred: From many years of providing HIV services, we learned that HIV programs need to recognize the unique needs of individuals and groups of people. To reach people who are highly vulnerable to HIV, we collaborate with members of vulnerable populations to guide us so that our programs address the right needs in the right way at the right time. We also work with community health workers and community members to improve the quality of community health services. One of our studies demonstrated that communities can take the lead in the health service delivery and quality improvement by collecting, analysing and using data to identify gaps and find local solutions that work within their communities.
Beate: Yet, many countries have implemented similar measures to contain COVID-19. With an increase in reports of gender-based violence across settings after lockdowns were put in place, I came to realize the close relationship between peace and health. Both require us to constantly strive for and it seems impossible to achieve one without the other.
Alfred: COVID-19 made existing inequalities and vulnerabilities more visible. At the same time, many people express their hope for a better world. This includes the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who emphasized: “What the world needs now is solidarity.” I am glad to have featured in the COVID Ready song by Nazeem, a musician, prolific singer-songwriter and guitarist from Gambia. Through his music he calls on solidarity and unity during these times of fear and misinformation. The song is a meaningful vehicle for promoting resilience and positive change, with a clear message: “As One World we will be stronger.”
While more could be said, it is coming to 11pm. Our children are still playing in the background. And, it is time to get some sleep for another day of promoting health, peace and solidarity.
*Alfred Itunga is the Technical Communication Officer at LVCT Health Kenya. He is passionate in developing strategies for communication for development and community health campaign.
**Beate Ringwald is a PhD fellow from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine at LVCT Health Kenya. Her research focusses on community health systems, HIV and gender-based violence.