How the fight against Covid has undermined the progress that was being made in tackling malaria

Rhona Elliott Communications Officer with Malaria No More UK 14th February 2022

South African rugby player, Siya Kolisi, in the Draw The Line campaign film. Image credit: Malaria No More

Deaths from malaria have soared as the Covid-19 pandemic has diverted resources away from the battle against one of the world’s deadliest diseases. It’s time for the media to tell the malaria story with renewed vigour, argues Rhona Elliott.

Malaria is one of the world’s oldest, deadliest diseases, stealing young futures and claiming the life of a child every minute – that is 700 children dying every day. Before the Covid-19 pandemic half of the world’s population were already living with the threat of malaria and, despite promising progress since the beginning of the millennium, the parasite had already started fighting back.

Malaria persists in high-burden communities, and years of plateaued funding and under-prioritisation, new threats from the natural world, such as growing drug and insecticide resistance, and other humanitarian emergencies, have slowed progress against the disease and sparked fears of resurgence. The emergence of Covid-19 was only going to make the fight against malaria even harder.

Despite Covid-19, malaria prevention campaigns have continued

Tremendous collective efforts ensured that more than 90 per cent of malaria prevention campaigns moved forward in 2020, but new figures in the latest World Malaria Report reveal that there were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627, 000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2020 – the highest number in nearly a decade. This represents around 14 million more cases in 2020 compared to 2019, and 69,000 more lives lost to this easily preventable and cheaply treatable disease, with approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment during the pandemic.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry the heaviest malaria burden, accounting for about 95 per cent of all malaria cases and 96 per cent of all deaths in 2020, with around 80 per cent of deaths in the region among children under five years of age.

How media coverage of Covid has impacted on reporting about malaria

Over the past two years, Covid-19 has dominated global and regional news cycles, raising concerns that reporting on the pandemic would overshadow coverage of malaria, and other high-burden diseases. We cannot deny there have been – and continue to be – additional barriers as we try to  secure media coverage for malaria, especially when new developments such as Covid-19 vaccine milestones or emerging variants take precedent.

However, the impact of Covid-19 has generally had a positive impact on news reporting and public interest in stories about global health security and pandemic preparedness. Covid-19 has proved beyond doubt that our world is more interconnected than ever and reinforced the fact that disease outbreaks and the state of health systems in one country can easily impact another.

Public perceptions of global health have permanently changed

Audience interest has increased and people are now more aware of basic disease epidemiology and vaccine development, for example, scientific jargon such as the ‘R number’, ‘efficacy ratings’, and ‘contact tracing’ are no longer understood only by experts. Global interest in coverage of new malaria vaccines has also been huge. News coverage of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute R21 malaria vaccine showing 77 per cent efficacy in Phase 2 clinical trials, and the GSK-developed RTS, S vaccine becoming the first ever malaria vaccine to be recommended for use by the WHO, hit headlines around the world in ways we have never seen before.

The Draw the Line campaign won awards at both The Drum Awards and the World Media Awards. Image credit: Malaria No More

The ‘Draw The Line Against Malaria’ campaign

In February 2021, Zero Malaria Starts With Me launched a brand new, Africa-first campaign ‘Draw The Line Against Malaria’ to help shine a spotlight on the malaria fight.  Reflecting the energy, talent and culture from across the continent, with references to art, fashion, music, sport and entertainment, this new youth-focussed creative campaign sought to galvanise young people from across the African continent, and around the globe, to call on their leaders to prioritise malaria while continuing to fight Covid-19.

Brought to life through a powerful short film starring some of Africa’s biggest changemakers, including Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge, South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi and Nigerian actress Omotola J Ekeinde, this campaign has inspired young people to be the generation to ‘draw the line against malaria’.

At the heart of the campaign is a beautiful, universal visual language made up of lines, symbols, and patterns called ‘Muundo,’ which was created by Láolú Senbanjo, a Nigerian visual artist and musician, and Art Director for the campaign. The Muundo has become an ever-growing crowd-sourced mural on which people can add their own stamp by visiting and drawing their own line against malaria. Later this year, the Muundo will be presented to world leaders as a rallying cry for increased action in the fight against malaria.

Increased media coverage has reflected audience interest in the campaign

Since the campaign launched, thousands of people have drawn the line against malaria, and we’ve seen our key audiences connecting with the Muundo language and using the power of the unique artwork to drive real change in their communities and countries. This award-winning campaign has so far resulted in 1.4 billion impressions around the world to date and achieved more than 24 million digital engagements.

There have been broadcast pieces aired on CNN, Sky News and MTV Base, as well as on local radio stations in rural Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Rwanda, and print pieces in global and regional media outlets including Global Citizen, BBC World Service, BBC Africa, The Standard, Kenya, and Al Jazeera, to billboards in Lagos Airport or beside busy roads in Kigali, full-page adverts in GQ and African influencers Instagram pages. Draw The Line has captured the imagination of young people to take a stand against malaria. Now, we need the media to keep telling the story of malaria with renewed vigour.

Rhona Elliott is a Communications Officer at Malaria No More UK.

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