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Africa Battles Covid Misinformation In Search Of Herd Immunity

To date, COVID-19 has ravaged Africa, exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Despite hope of the prevalence of a vaccine to contain the scourge that has claimed thousands, a flood of misinformation surrounding its safety and efficacy stands in the way of the continent catching up with the rest of the world in recovery efforts. Against this background, African Union, Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) in collaboration with the African Development Bank and the Africa CDC, has embarked on a continental COVID-19 vaccination sensitization campaign towards achieving a herd immunity. CHARLES MKOKA caught up with WILLIAM CAREW, Head of ECOSOCC secretariat based in Lusaka, Zambia to provide insights. Excerpts;

Can you tell our readers more about yourself as Head of ECOSOCC?

I am William Carew, Head of Secretariat of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) of the African Union since November 2019. I have hands on experience in International Development after working for over 20 years in both local and International NGOs in Cambodia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Vietnam and presently Zambia.

Apart from working at the ECOSOCC Secretariat, I have a deep understanding of high-level setup and operationalization of the Secretariat, and currently leading a dynamic team of staff in the implementation of related action-plans, programs, and activities of the Secretariat and those of sectorial cluster committees of ECOSOCC.

I have also served in other senior management positions, coordinated and supported different projects and programs at both national and international levels while at the African Development Bank in Abidjan, Action Aid International in Ghana, World Vision International in South East Asia and International Planned Parenthood Federation Africa Regional Office in Kenya among others.

I obtained a Master’s Degree in Strategic Management from the University of Derby (UK). Currently, I am research student pursuing doctoral studies in Development Planning and Public Administration at the University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town, South Africa.

I understand ECOSOCC is a recently established arm of the African Union. What is its mandate for the benefit of our readers?

Well…ECOSOCC is not a recently established arm of the African Union. It was established under the provisions of Articles 5 and 22 of the African Union’s Constitutive Act to build strong partnership between governments and diverse segments of African civil society. It has been in existence since July 2004 as a policy development interface that harnesses civil society expertise to the work of various departments of the African Union Commission and the AU at large. The Secretariat relocated to Lusaka, Zambia, from the African Union Commission under the Citizens and Diaspora Directorate on 1 December, 2019, in line with the decision of the policy organs of the African Union. The statute of ECOSOCC, adopted by the Heads of State and Government at the Third Ordinary Session of the Assembly in July 2004 defines it as an advisory organ of the African Union composed of different social and professional groups of the member states of the African Union.

It works through sectoral cluster committees that mirror the departmental structure of the AUC and works continuously with the latter to initiate and produce advisory opinions on policies and programs. The ECOSOCC Secretariat based in Lusaka, Zambia provides Secretarial and policy support for the activities of the council and helps with the implementation of outcomes of the AU policy organs, ECOSOCC General Assembly and its various Committees.

ECOSOCC is one of the organs of the African Union with a distinctive mandate as follows; • Promote dialogue between all segments of African people on issues concerning the continent and its future; • Forge strong partnerships between governments and all segments of civil society, in particular, women, the youth, children, the diaspora, organized labour, the private sector, and professional groups; • Promote the participation of African civil society in the implementation of the policies and programmes of the AU; • Support policies and programmes that promote peace, security and stability and foster continental development and integration; • Promote and defend a culture of good governance, democratic principles and institutions, popular participation, human rights and social justice; • Promote, advocate and defend a culture of gender equality; • Promote and strengthen the institutional, human and operational capacities of the African civil society. In a nutshell, it is a platform for engagement on cultural and socio-economic issues, that serves a consultative and advisory role to the African Union for Africa’s inclusive development.

You came on the platform when COVID – 19 pandemic had already devastated major sectors of development on the continent. How did this affect your operations as a new kid on the block ?

It is imperative for me to re-emphasize that the autonomous Secretariat in Lusaka is indeed a newly established one but ECOSOCC as an organ is not a new kid on the block as you can see from my initial response that the organ has been in existence since July, 2004. However, it indeed a fact that the covid-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented program implementation environment not only for ECOSOCC but for the world at large.

In spite of these operational challenges imposed by the pandemic, ECOSOCC successfully integrated a large segment of African civil society into the African Union's work, particularly within the context of the pandemic response. This was accomplished through a consistent deployment of online and social media platforms in the delivery of its program work plan for all its structures.

ECOSOCC adopted its program implementation framework to the realities of the pandemic and vastly expanded its internal capacity for web-based program execution with a shift from the regular in-person implementation framework to an almost exclusively virtual platform. This shift enables us to carry out the implementation of our mandate.

I gather African Union ECOSOCC, African Development Bank and African CDC have embarked on a continental campaign to raise awareness on access to factual and verified information. How true is this?

Yes, with the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa, ECOSOCC and the AfDB's Civil Society and Community Engagement and Social Innovation Division embarked on a bi-weekly webinar series. This united front is meant to raise awareness, sensitize and educate African citizens about the pandemic coupled with public health guidance from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the World Health Organization (WHO). The webinars also provide a platform for sharing lessons from the interventions that CSO’s are undertaking at local and national levels to respond to the pandemic under emergency conditions and drawing lessons on what is working and what more needs to be done to save lives and build community resiliences.

First stage of the webinar series focused on the outbreak and the resultant emergency response, and addressed such themes as health and sanitation, information and misinformation, the frontline experiences of CSOs, resource mobilization, gender mainstreaming in the pandemic response, and the use of innovative technology and ICT in the context of Covid-19. As the continental response transitions from emergency response to long-term reconstruction, the second stage of the webinar series similarly focused on themes central to the elaboration of new frameworks that were required to facilitate recovery, build resilience, and adapt institutions and systems to the realities of post-COVID-19 socio-economics in Africa such as resilience, accountability, Pan-Africanism and solidarity, education and, youth. These webinar series attracted many African citizens in and out of the continent who are constantly glued on their computers for our bi-weekly sessions.

Currently, we are on the last stretch to end the COVID pandemic with the series focusing on addressing issues of a flood of misinformation and fake news. You will notice there is a lot surrounding COVID-19 vaccines with particular regard to its safety and efficacy as the AU CDC roll out the vaccination. The main objective of this current series is to promote accessibility and use of COVID-19 vaccines in order to build herd immunity in Africa and thereby halt the spread of the pandemic and its adverse impact on public health and socio-economic development. The inaugural session was held on the 5th of March, 2021 and this series will run till June this year together with a huge campaign that will involve other forms of social media, radio, TV, print media engagements, and stakeholder’s consultations. I would like to take this opportunity to invite all CSOs and the African citizens to check on the ECOSOCC, AU-CDC, AfDB websites for information on the next series which are done on a monthly basis.

How are you going to attain this mammoth task to reach out to the length and breadth of the continent? What measures are using on the ground to ensure you reap the intended results?

Indeed, our fundamental role as an organ that represents the people of Africa within the AU ecosystem, is to create a conducive environment for the AU to interface with CSOs. On one hand, we are also contributing to policy formulation in the form of advisory opinions that reflect practical experiences and lessons learnt from these organizations. On a different angle we want to contribute to the popularization of the policies and programmes of the AU and ensure we bring African citizens closer to the Union and to be informed on the works of the AU.

In doing so, ECOSOCC Secretariat has been exploring various avenues such as partnerships with the media, working with all national civil society platforms in the 55 AU member states, working with regional civil society bodies, professional associations, universities, continental organizations, think – tanks, diaspora networks, various RECs, government line ministries and development partners.

We will continue to strengthen our collaborative working relationship with the aforementioned institutions in achieving the intended results. This is the only way we can realize the vision of, “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”

The issue of fake news can best be addressed using the media as part of stating the facts. How do you plan to do this in the implementation of this programme?

We are indeed confronted with a serious challenge looking at the flood of misinformation and fake news surrounding COVID-19 vaccines with particular regard to its safety and efficacy. As you know, fake news spreads so widely and at high speed, posing serious challenges to the public to identify verified facts and advice from authoritative sources such the AU-CDC, WHO and Government medical authorities. This situation has given us an enormous task to help to stop the wide spread of this fake news, myths, misconceptions and misinformation.

Against this background, African Union ECOSOCC in collaboration with the African Development Bank and the Africa CDC, has initiated a continental COVID-19 vaccination sensitization campaign. It is aimed at ensuring that the wider African public has access to verified information about the COVID-19 vaccines from authoritative sources in the African public health community, with particular focus on the Africa CDC and their relevant Government authorities in all member states.

In the campaign implementation, Secretariat is using all the tools at our disposal, new and old, from the smart phone to the community radio, community bulletin board working with community-based organizations through our national chapters. We aim to share authoritative messages and content that are developed through our communications teams with technical support from the AU-CDC. In fact, this campaign which we are currently running involves various forms of engagements such as working with the mainstream media at all levels. We are also using social media to engage bloggers and media outlets to also disseminate key awareness messages. Our communications team is presently working with various continental media associations, national and regional media platforms to help and play their pivotal role in countering this flood of misinformation. We are also organizing training for media practitioners to help in reporting verified information and the good work which the AU CDC is doing which will in turn help to counter the fake news. So the media is indeed one of our key stakeholders in this campaign.

What other issues outside COVID – 19 are you doing that the public may need to know and appreciate?

ECOSOCC is doing a lot such as the Young Africans Writing Contest titled, “My Africa, My Future” targeting young Africans at secondary school level to submit their innovative ideas towards the various priorities of the AU’s Agenda 2063; our sectoral cluster committees mainstream programmatic activities which are the key operational mechanisms to formulate opinions and provide inputs into the policies and programmes of the African Union in all thematic sectors; our national chapters’ engagements on popularization of Agenda 2063 flagship projects, popularization on the AU theme of the year for 2021 which is “Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want;” commemoration activities such as the Africa Day, the AU day to mention but a few; our partnership programmes on peace and security with COMESA; the Lake Chad Basin Secretariat; the work on security sector reforms; our initiative on understanding and knowing the African Union which we are rolling out through universities in the continent and many more.

I would like to make an appeal to all Africa’s CSO’s and citizenry to visit the AU-ECOSOCC website on www.auecosocc.org. I would also urge citizens across Africa to patronize our social media platforms where you would find a lot of information on our various initiatives and engagements.

The overall thrust of ECOSOCC programmes is anchored on its continuous push to enhance the active participation of civil society organizations on the continent in significantly contributing to the AU’s Agenda 2063 through policy inputs in the form of advisory opinions, policy briefs, policy recommendations, position or white papers etc.

All these efforts are geared towards contributing to the inclusive growth and sustainable development of Africa to realize the vision ‘’to build an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa driven and managed by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

Any other developments that you may share with our readers?

Oh yes, the organ would also like to inform all CSO’s that in response to the AU executive council decision EX.CL/924(XXVII) which urges ECOSOCC as an advisory organ and in close consultation with AU commission, AU organs and member states to pursue actively a harmonized mechanism and clear criteria for the granting of AU consultative and observer status to CSOs in Africa. This process is underway to develop a framework that provides an institutional mechanism for civil society organizations’ participation within the framework of AU and further strengthen the AU CSOs engagement in promotion, popularization and implementation of AU policies and programmes in the continent.

The organ is also undertaking a similar exercise on the operationalization of the Legal and Political Framework for Diaspora CSO Participation in ECOSOCC. This is to give opportunity for the full participation of the 6th region into the work of ECOSOCC.

CSO’s are also encouraged to be part of all ECOSOCC national chapters in all AU member states and also be part of the sectoral clusters committees within the thematic pool of experts. Information can be found on our website and social media platforms.

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About the Author
Charles Mkoka
Charles Mkoka is Secretary General of the Association of Environmental Journalists. He is also Lead Partner for Ecosystems Partners, a privately owned firm he set up in 2015. He is a regular contributor of AEJ News and one of the editorial crew behind content gathering and production.



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Comments (2)
  • Let me be the first to congratulate you and the efforts you are making in spreading the necessary information, especially about COVID-19 and how collaborated efforts such as that of ECOSSOCC and other like-minded stakeholders will jumpstart an evolution-like approach to the pandemic. Together we can tame it!

  • Thank you very much Sydney Katunga for the commentary. We will keep pushing up, for the best in awareness raising among African peers.