Bobi Wine. Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images

Uganda’s musicians are fighting COVID-19 - why government should work with them

Ugandan pop musicians have released a raft of songs and music videos to educate and alert the public about COVID-19.

Notable among them have been Bobi Wine and Nubian Li’s Corona Virus Alert and Bebe Cool’s Corona Distance. But there’s also the likes of Pastor Frank Kyeyune’s Katonda Yekka ku Corona (God Only On Corona), Dickens Ahabwe’s Coronavirus in Uganda and Corona by Ykee Benda, King Saha, Joanita Kawalya, B2C, Fefe Busu Dre Cali and Myci Ou.

These are simple songs that assume a responsibility to help educate citizens. They are dense in information about COVID-19, about preventing its spread and getting help if one is infected.

But how effective are they in public health communication? As a music ethnographer in the region, I set out to examine this.

Can songs help fight disease?

As studies have shown in relation to interventions to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, music can create awareness about a disease while also providing psychosocial support to victims.

Songs can be a valuable tool of communication in health pandemics. HIV/AIDS studies show that music not only creates awareness about the ways the virus is transmitted, it also sensitises people on how to prevent it.

Moreover, music is a mechanism for counselling. Due to their power to employ metaphor, songs become objects through which impossibilities of daily discourses can be turned into hope, participating in the healing process of the patient.

The state response to the virus

Since Uganda confirmed its first COVID-19 case, the government has announced 34 measures to curb the virus. These have registered early success against infections and have included a mass shutdown and an extended lockdown. Parliament passed a supplementary budget of approximately US $82 million to fight COVID-19.

A community chairperson shares news about COVID-19 from the tallest building of his area in Kampala. Badru Katumba/AFP/Getty Images

Besides the health ministry’s COVID-19 messaging on state media, including television and radio, political leaders have also recorded messages in local languages to sensitise communities. Local leaders also broadcast COVID-19 information to their neighbourhoods, sometimes with loudhailers.

Although popular musicians are powerful tools of mobilisation, the Ugandan government has neither included them on any COVID-19 task forces nor formally contracted them to mobilise the public.

Inclusion of musicians in official campaigns against COVID-19 could have boosted the state’s fight in meaningful ways, particularly in combating stigmatisation of the victims.

The pop culture response

I regard popular music as mass-mediated and of its time and culture.

Bobi Wine and Bebe Cool are popular musicians. Their two songs employ innovative methods of communication to convey messages that are also amplified by their considerable social media followings.

Bobi Wine – who is also a politician and vocal opponent of government – created a hit that soon passed a million clicks on YouTube and has garnered international kudos.

In Corona Virus Alert he and Nubian Li emphasise, among others, the responsibility of all Ugandans to wash and sanitise their hands, observe social distancing, to isolate by going into quarantine if symptoms appear. The artists also list the signs and symptoms of COVID-19.

Bobi Wine and Nubian Li have been picking up awards for this video.

For their part, Bebe Cool and his associates display the ministry of health’s COVID-19 hotline number throughout their video. They implore people to avoid touching eyes, mouths and noses with unwashed hands and to not shake hands. People need to use tissues or bended elbow to cough and sneeze into. The song ends with an emphasis on the need to heed the lockdown.

Like most coronavirus songs on Ugandan TV and radio, messages are embedded in videos with visuals and text. Bobi Wine and Nubian Li exploit the text more than the visual element – mostly a studio setting – to underscore their message.

In the song a dialogue emerges, Bobi Wine sometimes singing in Luganda (the language of the Baganda of Central Uganda) while Nubian Li responds in English. The rap in the middle emphasises the messaging on symptoms and responses, echoing the central theme of warning people about coronavirus.

Bebe Cool and his fellow musicians demonstrate safety measures between graphics reinforcing messages.

Bebe Cool strikes a balance between visuals and the text. The artists in the video perform COVID-19 prevention tips, like washing hands, and the video then entrenches this by displaying animated illustrations showing six steps of thorough hand washing. The scenes are set in the home and church to normalise staying home while emphasising the fact that COVID-19 has killed many people.

The song features boy rapper Patrick Ssenyonjo. His inclusion shows that COVID-19 does not discriminate – it affects all people including the young. The rap style is widely consumed throughout the world and easily accessible, especially to the youth.

Why co-opt pop music?

Music generally plays a dual role – it entertains as it also communicates messages. In Uganda some community groups continue to stigmatise and reject victims and suspected victims of COVID-19, sometimes with threats of violence.

These people are confronted by two enemies: the virus and social rejection. While it’s too soon to have studied the impact of Uganda’s coronavirus songs, HIV/AIDS has shown that the use of pop music provides psychosocial support to victims of ill-health. It can be used to supplement the effort of medical doctors. It not only soothes the minds of sick people and restores their hope, but can also be messaged to implore the community to accept the victims.

It can also help shape popular opinion. Most of the songs have addressed the indiscriminate nature of COVID-19, emphasising that it affects everyone.

Uganda’s national COVID-19 taskforce would do well to employ a multi-faceted approach to its public health communication. One where music – in schools, on radio, on the internet – is embraced as a measure towards preventing disease and loss as well as resettling the victims in their community lives.

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