In Zimbabwe, the coronavirus—while still fairly contained—threatens to overwhelm an already strained health system and reverse gains made over the years in the areas of maternal health, child care, immunization, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
“Our best defense against COVID-19 right now is information,” says Dr. Alex Gasasira, WHO Representative to Zimbabwe. “When people pay attention to the science and wear masks, do social distancing and keep hygiene by washing hands frequently, we hold the pandemic at bay.” The United Nations has been working with government agencies to do just that.
But, he says, the typical public health education goes only so far.
“The posters, the radio spots, the social media, the work with journalists to share accurate information—that’s all helping,” Gasasira adds. “But some people still just don’t pay attention. We need to tune into their frequency, too.”
The power of music
Fortunately, Zimbabwe has a not-so-secret weapon in the battle against the pandemic: music.
“We don’t want to sit folding our hands,” says Emmanuel Nkomo, percussionist for Bulawayo Afro-Tech troupe. “We want to play our role in informing the public.”
Singer and songwriter Vuyo Brown agrees. “Most who come to me are in need of healing and love, so I make sure I’m always available to give that.”
Thandy Dhlana and other Zimbabwean artists were featured in an hour-long virtual concert held on 16 June in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. Major highlights of the concert include celebrating the day of the African child, messages on ending child marriages, COVID-19 prevention messages, UN75 public engagement.
Nkomo, Brown, and other musicians say that they share a special relationship with their fans. Their songs resonate with listeners’ deepest emotions, their loves and losses. Fans hang on their words, wait for their new releases, memorize every note of their songs, sing along when they come on the radio. In a word, they’re trusted.
“That’s powerful,” says Gasasira. “If we can harness that energy for public health, then Zimbabwe wins.”
Connecting to audiences digitally
And so they have. In two virtual concerts so far, nine top Zimbabwean performers have lent their voices to support the UN’s work on Covid-19 and other issues. More concerts are in the works for the coming months, organized by the UN Communications Group, which brings together 25 United Nations agencies in the country.
Zimbabwean artists, Djembe Monks, perform at the virtual concert held on 16 June in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe.
During their performances, musicians mixed in messages about how to stay safe, the UN’s 75th birthday, and the Sustainable Development Goals—the global blueprint to end poverty and inequality and protect the planet.
Sharing vital messages through music
“These are technical topics,” says Zenzele Ndebele, director of Centre for Innovation and Technology, a youth-led enterprise that does film, social media, and livestreaming for artists. “But performers don’t lecture their audiences. They talk in human terms, and fans listen. Especially young people.” He says that, when performers seamlessly weave messages into their performances, they create an opportunity for “organic” public discourse—people sharing information because it’s interesting or creative.
Indeed, the live concerts reached almost a million people online and through social media sharing. That creates a critical mass of energy around stopping COVID-19 and supporting the UN.
“People miss going out, partying and having a good time,” says DJ Yayos, another of the concert performers. A lockdown that started in March effectively shut down all concerts. Even as restrictions eased somewhat starting in May, many people felt cooped up. “So they were happy during the virtual concerts,” adds DJ Yayos, “and at the same time got educated.”
The shared experience of music speaks to another reason why the concerts have been valuable. “Fans love the music itself, but they also love the communal experience,” says Dr. Esther Muia, UNFPA Representative to Zimbabwe. “We know the same thing from our work preventing violence against women and girls, for example. It’s one thing for UNFPA to educate people about gender-based violence. But it’s another level when people start to educate others. When our solutions for health and safety ensure active participation of people at every step of the way, our interventions make a great difference.”