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PRESIDENT MASISI PROVIDES SOUND LEADERSHIP IN THE COVID-19 FIGHT

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I, on the basis of my experience in government, wish to educate or inform the nation of Botswana’s plausible strides in the fight against COVID-19. In particular, I will address misinformation recently peddled by Mr. Joel Konopo in an opinion piece titled Masisi mismanaging COVID-19.The title of the story and its contents are void of scientific information and, therefore, exaggerated and misleading.

For the record, President Masisi has led a spirited and well-coordinated fight against COVID-19 despite our nation’s resources constraints and limitations pertaining to vaccination delivery from manufacturers – something experienced by all developing countries. In fact, despite the regrettable challenges faced, statistics demonstrate that Botswana out performs many in this fight. Facts should not be selectively ignored.You will be aware that many journalists the world over have taken the virtuous and ethical position to source information from credible organisations like the World Health Organisation, in a bid to flatten the misinformation curve.Such stance is commendable especially when the entire world is experiencing a widening gulf between scientific consensus and public opinion, driven by social media misinformation and conspiracy theories.

As the media seeks to give both scientific consensus and public opinion equal column mileage in their news and opinion pages in the name of achieving balance, some have argued that, although the public should be able to get information on all sides of an issue, that doesn’t mean that all sides of the issue deserve equal weight. They argued that when the scientific evidence is clear cut, the assumption that good journalism requires mutually opposed views to be treated as equally valid simply does not hold.The author, Mr. Joel Konopo, however threw away principled stance. In an apparent attempt to sing along to “public opinion” at the expense of scientific consensus, Mr. Konopo sunk below the “false balance” or “false equivalence” between public opinion and scientific consensus, that most media pundits complained against, and instead based his story solely on conspiracy theories and questionable opinions from unnamed sources and Facebook posts while closing out clear cut scientific facts.

In the process, he seems to have lost perspective on a line of reporting he is heavily invested in and predictably his story generated more heat than light.But when the weight of scientific evidence points incontrovertibly in one direction, selectively reporting on information from anonymous sources and Facebook posts can result in misleading coverage.Mr. Konopo in his story states that:“In early May, President Mokgweetsi Masisi told a CNN journalist that Botswana is “on the verge” of becoming the first African country to vaccinate its entire adult population against the deadly COVID-19.With unbridled optimism, the president lauded the country’s past experience in fighting pandemics, singling out its spirited campaign against HIV/Aids in the 1990s.But by mid-July, things began to unravel.

Social media feeds surfaced with videos of COVID-19 funerals, wailing relatives outside hospitals and long queues of gasping patients at testing centres.“My mother just died in the parking lot. [Princess] Marina [Hospital] turned us away, saying there are no beds,” read a Facebook post, highlighting the unpleasant reality of scarcity during the pandemic in mineral-rich Botswana. At the end of July, Princess Marina, the country’s biggest public hospital, warned that its mortuary was overflowing, while Sidilega, a private hospital in Gaborone, advised patients seeking emergency care to look elsewhere. Frantic calls for medicines and oxygen, and discussions about the efficacy of Ivermectin, used to treat parasite infections, and COVID tests flooded the social media.

Away from the CNN glare, Masisi changed the narrative. The problem, he said, lies with Covax, the World Health Organisation initiative aimed at providing equitable third-world access to COVID-19 vaccines.It had swindled African countries that had invested in the facility to buy vaccines, he told people at a vaccination centre near Gaborone on 22 July. He alleged that third world countries made payment in advance but remain at the back of the line while rich nations get the vaccine.“We have pumped money as developing countries of the African continent into the Covax facility but the returns were not satisfactory,” he told the Weekend Post newspaper. “They cheated us … this is not fair.”Mr. Konopo inserts himself in the story, suggesting that President Masisi’s ambition to ensure that Botswana is the first African country to vaccinate its people has collapsed.How does Mr Konopo’s opinion stack up against scientific facts? Besides countries such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Carbo Verde, Comoros, Sao Tome and Principe, Botswana has the second most advanced vaccination programme in sub-Saharan Africa after Zimbabwe. According to Statista.com, the rankings are as follows:

Zimbabwe 17,52 per 100 people; Botswana15,76 per hundred people; South Africa 13.8 per 100 people; Libya 10.73 per 100 people, Algeria 9.43 per 100 people and Namibia 8.69 per 100 people. This data is corroborated by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the World Health Organisation. Mr. Konopo however deliberately ignored this publicly available scientific data because it contradicts his opinion that President Masisi’s ambition to make Botswana the first country to have fully vaccinated its people has unravelled.Mr. Konopo further uses anecdotal information from Facebook posts about COVID-19 funerals and hospital queues to back up his opinion that Botswana is losing the war against COVID-19. Again, his opinion flies in the face of scientific facts.

According to scientific data from the World Health Organisation which is corroborated by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, even at the peak of the country’s coronavirus infections, Botswana is able to keep more of its people alive compared to all other countries in the region, except for Mozambique. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, updated on 8th August, 2021, Mozambique has the lowest Case Fatality Ratio (CFR) in the region at 1.2%, followed by Botswana at 1.4%, Zambia is third at 1.7% then Namibia at 2.6%, eSwatini at 2.7% Lesotho 2.8% South Africa at 3.0% and Zimbabwe at 3.3%. The CFR is the number of people who have died, divided by the total number of people diagnosed with the disease and it reflects the severity of the disease in a particular context, at a particular time, in a particular population. The probability that someone dies from a disease doesn’t just depend on the disease itself, but also on the treatment they receive, and on the patient’s own ability to recover from it.

All countries have to reach the peak of their infection at some stage, and that Botswana is able to keep more of its citizens alive at the peak of its COVID-infection better than countries which have either not reached their peak or are past their peak contradicts Mr. Konopo’s conclusion that the Masisi administration is mismanaging COVID-19. But Mr. Konopo, determined to ensure that facts do not stand in the way of his story, chose anonymous sources and questionable Facebook posts over credible scientific facts. He, further, suggests that President Masisi was disingenuous when he decried delays in the supply of vaccines from the COVAX facility. Had Mr. Konopo followed principled advice of bodies such as the Botswana Editors Forum and sourced information from the World Health Organisation, he would have come across a press statement from the UN agency dated 25 March, 2021 under the heading “COVAX updates participants on delivery delays for vaccines.” In the press statement, WHO confirms President Masisi’s concerns. Mr. Konopo would also have come across information from WHO Senior Advisor Bruce Aylward’s virtual UN briefing in May in which he gave the international organisation an update on the delays in delivering COVAX vaccines to participating countries.

It does not take a media expert to tell that the author of this story did a sloppy job overplaying the credibility of his anonymous sources and Facebook post, reaching unfounded conclusions and publishing a piece that ought to have been killed.A common thread throughout his story is that he never attempted to either confirm his conspiracy theories about government’s procurement processes or check his social media information on the state of Botswana’s coronavirus pandemic against scientific facts from WHO or other credible organisations.

Journalists should appreciate that there’s too much at stake in this fight against coronavirus for the media to be giving debunked and dangerous social media fringe views an air of legitimacy and the oxygen of publicity as, ultimately, such sophism leaves us all more divided and less informed.In conclusion, our resolve to defeat COVID-19 will not diminish. We will not be discouraged from our goal of saving the Botswana population. Together with all our supportive countrymen, we will win.

Kabo Neale Sechele Morwaeng

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