ssa Kaboré, Charlemagne Tapsoba, Yamba Kafando, Orokia Sory, Joël Arthur Kiendrébéogo

Communication is a key component in the response to COVID-19. At the beginning of the epidemic in Burkina Faso, a helpline was set up to allow the public to alert the community of suspected cases and contact cases. This helpline was a key part of the communication system around the disease, initially with tens of thousands of calls per day. But this number dropped considerably after a few weeks. In this blog post we look at the possible reasons for this decline and, more generally, the importance of investing well in communication strategies about the disease.

The first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Burkina Faso on 9th March 2020. Initially considered by the majority of the population as a “disease of the Western countries” that could not withstand the heat of Burkina Faso, and/or as a “disease of the rich” affecting a certain elite, until the new coronavirus just crossed its borders. As part of its health response plan, the Ministry of Health set up a warning unit and a single call centre for the whole country, in the capital Ouagadougou. This centre was initially equipped with two telephone numbers to receive paid emergency calls from individuals who showed signs of COVID-19.

From tens of thousands of calls a day at the beginning…

Very quickly, this 2-number telephone hotline system was overwhelmed and those who tried in vain to reach the warning unit soon complained via interactive radio broadcasts or social networks. In response to this situation, the Government, with the support of mobile phone companies, set up a helpline, 3535, with more than 47 telephone extensions run mainly by volunteers. These volunteers received about 50,000 emergency calls a day from all over the country. The volunteers were paid a modest fee of about USD10 a day. In reality, the initial feeling of invincibility to the virus that had prevailed in Burkina Faso soon gave way to psychosis after the first COVID-19 related death was announced on 18th March 2020. This death was all the more worrying for the public as it was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa. This was the beginning of the deconstruction of the myth that Africans were resistant to the coronavirus, partly fueled by an African student’s recovery from COVID-19 in China and widely reported in sub-Saharan Africa. Another factor fueling the public’s psychosis was mathematical modelling that predicted an implosion of COVID-19 cases in the country. Suddenly, everyone felt that they were in imminent danger and were encouraged to alert the health services of any symptoms that might resemble COVID-19. This was reflected in the words of one official on the monitoring committee: “We do not sleep here anymore. We work 24/7. “

…to a sudden drop in the number of calls, coupled with threats and insults to call centre operators

About one month after the index case in Burkina Faso, the call centre began to record a significant drop in the number of emergency calls. From an initial 50,000 calls per day, operators were now receiving only 14,000 as at mid-April. This trend has not been reversed since then, down to between 1,000 and 4,000 calls per day by August 2020. Alongside the drop in the number of calls received, call centre operators were recording more and more calls with ulterior motives, often accompanied by threats and insults against them. “There are people calling and threatening to come and attack and beat us up,” said one call centre manager. On 17th June 2020, out of 9,052 calls received from all regions of the country by the call centre operators, only 6 were directly related to the disease, the rest were threats or insults to the operators, or complaints to the authorities.

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