COLUMN | COVID-19: Govt’s daily report is a mess. Here’s how to clean it up

By Mike Murenzvi

The daily COVID-19 updates by the Ministry of Health and Child Care, distributed at midnight, have become staple reading material over the past weeks. Going to bed before receiving it doesn’t seem quite right.

In the past two weeks, there have been errors in these bulletins, often corrected in a later update, and they raise certain questions which lead to more.

  • Why are updates sent in the middle of the night?
  • What is the review process?
  • Why are there so many “details to follow” notes?
  • Why is the document layout so poor?
  • Why are there so many stories about the cases?
  • Why aren’t localised reports readily available?

Simply, why?

Data is simply facts, figures, and related detail, whether organised or not. In its raw form, it can either mean something, or nothing at all. There must be a process to convert that data into meaningful information for the intended recipients. This is where presentation comes into play.

Zim’s daily COVID-19 update: Text heavy, hard to read, released past our bed time
SA’s daily COVID-19 update: No ‘case stories’, easy to read, released before bed time

The current national update reads like a collection of data put together in a semi-coherent manner and presented as information. With each update, there are small or big changes. There is no set format. It seems to depend on the whim of the Ministry officials on duty that day.

Presentation matters, because it affects how we process the information and what we pick up from it. Poor presentation may result in key pieces of information being lost in plain sight to the recipient.

The Ministry should ask itself these questions:

  • To whom are they presenting the updates?
  • What is the purpose of the updates?
  • Is the layout the best way to present the update?
  • Is the update clear and concise?
  • Does this update reflect all pertinent information without ambiguity?

My thoughts?

The Ministry should look to the South African daily update for inspiration. The current update has data tables on testing numbers and cases, separated by province. These should be expanded to show the day’s numbers and the cumulative totals.

On the cases and their respective detail, it’s good to have a little extra detail while the numbers are still relatively low, as they currently are. But, as numbers increase, all these details now need to be cut to only key points.

Tables reflecting the type of case – that is imported, local transmission, community transmission and province – are paramount. Beyond that, issues of age, sex, and related case follow. The Ministry must also consider splitting PCR and RDT test data.

Graphs and infographics are a great way of summarising the data for easy public digestion, as they can show more information without the need for many words.

Words should only clarify and highlight major points within the information presented, such as the presence of a particularly significant cluster of cases.

Timing

My pet peeve is the timing of the release of the update. There is no reason why the daily update cannot be released by 6PM, giving enough time for presentation within the day’s prime time news reports.

The implementation of reporting cut-off times is a great way to ensure that this happens. It gives the authorities enough time to analyse the data and flag any potential errors or needs for clarification and further testing, well before reporting.

The case of the Harare 6

The 29 April update informs the nation that six new cases had been identified in Harare, along with two cases in Bulawayo, bringing the national total to 40. This was the biggest daily jump in cases to date.

“Details to follow”, the update says.

On 30 April, the update informs the nation that the six cases have been flagged as “unusual”, and the entire testing process in Harare is being subjected to a quality assurance review. All 261 Harare results for that day are suspended from reporting.

The May 1 update informs the nation that the six cases are in fact negative, along with all other tests with pending results. The national case tally reverts to 34. No reason, outside of quality checks, is given for the erroneous reporting.

To say that this will negatively affect public perception of the testing process is an understatement. It raises more questions than answers. Didn’t anyone notice the unusual cluster before reporting? What is the quality assurance process from sample-taking to results publication? What was the cause of the false positive?

Between this and the long, winding case histories given in the updates, the Ministry is actively feeding and charging the Zimbabwean rumour mill. Our rumour mill is a machine known to have little regard for retractions or corrections, where touch is a move and you have to deal with the consequences, among everything else going on.

Conclusion

Reporting for the press and the general public is more of an art than it is a science. It is not just about what is said, but also how it is said. Positive changes to the report layout, information, and timing, will definitely be good for the Ministry’s image. It is part of what wins public confidence.

A well-presented daily update and the current situation report updating the World Health Organization (WHO) and other regional bodies – all of which must be updated on the Ministry’s website on the day of publication – improves the perception of reliability of the information presented.

Consideration should also be given to easy public access of relevant provincial or local authority reports, with localised information specific to an area. Currently, this is sporadic and seem like leaks instead of actual release of public information.

Better communication leads to less misinformation.

————–

The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal opinions and should in no way be interpreted to represent the views of any organisations that the he is associated or connected with.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here