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Bench Africa GM slams mainstream media over COVID-19 reporting

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

The general manager of Bench Africa believes the media has painted yet another negative image of Africa that is not based on “any real facts”.

In an impassioned letter, Cameron Neill (pictured above) said the recent uptick in reports from the likes of BBC News, Science, and the Washington Post of a potential catastrophe in Africa, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could unjustifiably stain the reputation of the entire continent.

“We watched this unfold with Ebola, when African countries thousands of kilometres away were negatively portrayed by the mainstream media, despite the fact that they had no cases or direct flight paths in which the disease could spread,” he said.

“Meanwhile, European countries that were closer and had actual cases of Ebola were ignored.

“The media seems to depict Africa as one big country, ostensibly presuming that it’s the same all over Africa, which is simply not the case.”

Neill said it was up to his readers – travel and tourism professionals – to recognise the “casual bias” of statements of this nature and remember that “this impacts real people on the ground relying heavily on tourism, otherwise this will stick”.

“People will flock back to Italy and the US and forget about the horrors that transpired, but my trepidation is that there will be those who hesitate in going to Africa because of a stain merely of something that could have happened,” he said.

“We still hear about hesitancies to visit Rwanda [despite being rated by the World Economic Forum in 2017 as the ninth safest country in the world] because of the 1994 genocide and yet Croatia is seen as safe, despite the genocide that occurred there one year later.”

According to the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa, across the entire continent’s 54 countries a total of 33,085 cumulative cases have been confirmed. At least 1,465 deaths have been reported.

South Africa, which boasts the continent’s highest confirmed cases, has reported a total of 4,793 to date, followed by Algeria (3,649), Cameroon (1,705), Ghana (1,671) and Nigeria (1,337).

While the likes of Namibia, Burundi, Sao Tome and Principe, the Seychelles, Gambia, and Mauritania have reported fewer than 20 cases.

In Europe, more than 1.24 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, with 123,225 deaths across the continent.

The continent of America has confirmed more than 1.21 million cases, and as many as 67,869 deaths.

iStock.com/pierivb

Neill said it was important to note that he is not downplaying the risks of COVID-19, and that Africa faces potentially serious issues with the virus.

“Poverty, lack of clean water, HIV/AIDS sufferers with a compromised immune system, a lack of medical facilities [in some African countries] or access to them and other issues that combine to make fighting the disease harder once it gains a foothold,” he said.

“That is precisely why so many African countries took this incredibly seriously from the outset.”

Neill told Travel Weekly health checkpoints had become “ubiquitous”, particularly at large airports or places with frequent visitors.

“Even the small airports in Botswana like Maun, which services the Okavango Delta has implemented them. You’ll find them from South Africa to Rwanda, from Kenya to West Africa [which Bench Africa does not offer as a travel destination],” he said.

“Given the history with Ebola many [African countries] have had them in place to prevent either tourism or through traffic. To be fair, a lot of Asian countries have them also.  Australia is a little behind with that. The handwashing stations can be found at the local buses in Kenya, the matatus.”

Neill directed Travel Weekly to directives to contain the spread of COVID-19 by the Kenyan government, including the requirement for all matatus to now provide hand sanitisers to passengers and the requirement for buses to be cleaned at least twice per day.

This was all in place at a time when, he writes, “Australians could waltz through airports in Sydney without worry, or disembark a cruise ship with a nasty cough”.

“Sadly, all we heard about was the issues they faced and how it was all going to go downhill.”

“It’s important to put things in perspective and remember that each African country is different with different conditions, environments, populations and histories,” Neill told Travel Weekly.

He hopes the continent’s current measures manage to control the virus, “not for our business sake but for our love of Africa and its people”.

“Given that the community projects and conservation efforts depend on tourism, a panic around this could have real and long lasting impacts,” he said.

“Having seen the ridiculous hysteria around Ebola at the time I just worry that the same will happen again and unfairly affect the continent.”

Another major challenge the continent faces is the escalation of food shortages due to the pandemic and the exacerbation of a current agricultural crisis induced by locusts.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 265 million people in low and middle-income countries, like Nigeria and South Sudan, will be under severe threat unless swift action is taken to tackle the pandemic.

This is nearly double the number in the newly published Global Report on Food Crises 2020, which estimates that 135 million people in 55 countries currently face acute hunger as a result chiefly of conflict, the effects of climate change, and economic crises.

Neill’s comments come as Bench Africa launched its ‘Paws and Dream’ campaign with a beautiful video featuring a reflective poem. Check it out below:


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