From Laughing Matter to Real Threat

Media Lecturer Robin Tyson describes how the virus spreads slowly but steadily, even in Africa’s least populated state of Namibia.

Image: of Ester Mbathera (The Namibian Newspaper) Reporting the pandemic in protective gear. Namibian Journalists in Walvis Bay after being handed out PPE suits.

It started with a hastily arranged press conference on a Saturday morning in March with the Minister of Health. He appeared in a small boardroom crammed with journalists to inform the nation that two Spanish nationals had tested positive for Covid-19 and were in quarantine.

Not only was his press conference late (and, in the age of social media, online viewers were annoyed at wasting their precious data waiting to hear the minister) but it turned out later the information was incorrect, and the two tourists were not from Spain but Romania. The Embassy of Spain in Namibia immediately put out a press release to correct the false information. It also revealed the level of public confusion about the virus. For instance, one of the questions asked at that first press conference by a listener to Eagle FM was why it only affected white people. The former minister of health was at pains to explain that, under our skin, we are, medically, all the same, and the virus could affect anybody.

It was the start of a regular series of briefings, first with the minister of health, then the president, who later detailed a series of lock-downs, starting with Khomas region, then extending to the whole country. Shops were closed, alcohol sales stopped, and people were expected to wear masks in public. People obliged, and the government immediately initiated payments of N$750 (approximately US$45) for all Namibians who were economically affected, as well as providing support for impacted businesses, especially in the field of tourism. International borders had been sealed, leading to an immediate drop in tourist visitors.

Ambitious plans were announced for the rapid building of hospital extensions in Walvis Bay (which never materialised) and the local constituency councillor there handed out full PPE suits to local journalists. They stood on the desert sands looking somewhat bemused in their new outfits. The governor of the region later said that the journalists “didn’t deserve” the protective gear.

However, in retrospect Namibia was, during March and April, in the calm before the storm. Numbers were so low that we knew them, not by name, but in fairly intimate detail. Lists would appear each day outlining details of the few cases that were being reported. Case number 10 involves a 33-year-old Namibian woman who had travelled to Dubai, Ethiopia and Johannesburg. She arrived in Namibia on 17 March and tested positive. Those under quarantine were housed by government in a variety of scattered locations, including guest lodges. At one venue in Windhoek there were complaints about the standard of accommodation and the quality of the food supplied.

But this all changed late in June. Suddenly there was a spike of cases in the coastal town of Walvis Bay, cases that seemingly had no contact with any of the previous cases from outside the country. From a number of positive cases less than 20, the spike continued, with, for instance, 72 cases being reported on a single day (6 July 2020). All cases reported on that day, with one exception, were from Walvis Bay.

So although the rest of the country was relaxed to ‘Level 4’, with nightclubs and casinos reopening, the Erongo Region around Walvis Bay was again on a strict lockdown, with no travel allowed in or out of the region apart from essential transport.

Intriguing tales started appearing of loopholes in the lockdown, with, for example, an alleged fugitive being smuggled across a river in a canoe and a mayor allegedly travelling through the desert to visit Walvis Bay to “deliver lamb carcasses”. Both ended up in quarantine.

Tensions flared when some independent media houses were denied access to events such as the opening of an isolation facility at the Windhoek central hospital. The excuse given was either the need for ‘social distancing’ or a ‘miscommunication’ from the Office of the President. Organisations such as the Namibia Media Trust were quick to condemn the seeming exclusion of independent media outlets from covering such important stories.

Media also had to quickly learn the skills of multi-media journalism, with print journalists expected to provide live video coverage of all press conferences with their smartphones, as well as writing stories for their social media pages and their print editions. One of the casualties impacted by Covid-19, however, will be print media, with well-established media organisations such as The Namibian announcing widespread job cuts in their operations.

It also led to mistakes being made in the rush to get copy online. One outlet, Informanté, wrote about Covid-29, instead of Covid-19. When corrected by a reader, they responded that “the mistake was recified”. Another reader then had to correct the correction.

But, in the end, the country, and its media, are learning the hard way that – even in the second least populated country on earth - Covid-19 is no longer a laughing matter, but something to be taken very seriously.

Robin Tyson is former manager of NBC National Radio and media lecturer at the University of Namibia. He is now retired, living in Swakopmund.

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