13 March 2020
UPDATE: On Saturday 14 March, the Department of Health set up an official Coronavirus website: https://sacoronavirus.co.za/
Communication from the national health department has been pretty good since the outbreak of Covid-19. Lwazi Manzi, the Minister of Health’s media person, has been superb. She has been running a WhatsApp group for reporters in which she’s updated us regularly, kept her cool in the face of many pesky questions, tried to be as transparent as possible, and worked very hard.
Since the first confirmed cases, there have been daily updates from Minister Zweli Mkhize. On Thursday there was a bit of a gaffe when the first case of local transmission was announced (in a statement that was borderline xenophobic, blaming the transmission to a Free State man on a Chinese businessman). Later in the day Minister Mkhize retracted this announcement — the Free State man didn’t have Covid-19 — and apologised. In a swift-moving crisis stuff like this will happen; no big deal. And it was good that an unconditional apology was swiftly made.
But there is a big problem.
The health department’s website is a mess. The Covid-19 page is incoherent. The daily updates may be on the site, but we can’t find them. It’s all very well that they’re in the reporters’ WhatsApp group, but (1) finding past posts in a busy WhatsApp group is nightmarish and (2) the public, not only journalists, should have easy access on an official webpage to everything the government is saying about Covid-19.
For example we found out about Minister Mkhize’s retraction of the local transmission case from another news site. We still haven’t found an official confirmation of this (but we trust the website we read it on).
In the 2000s websites on the gov.za portal were generally good: ministerial and department pages were easy to find, easy to read and easy to navigate. Since about the 2010s this has changed; they’ve become increasingly poorly designed and impenetrable.
The health department probably can’t fix its website anytime soon, but it could very quickly, over the coming weekend, set up a special Covid-19 website or webpage. It doesn’t need to be fancy; in fact it shouldn’t be. All it should be is a repository of statements and information, simply organised. Official statements should be released on this website rather than on WhatsApp. (In any case, a private platform owned by Facebook should not be the first place that official state communication is published. Nor should Facebook itself or Twitter be the first official places of communication.) The main health department webpage should then have a bright bold front page link to this new site.
This is easy to do and should cost next to nothing (we’d be glad to help at no charge).