A face mask as an indication this project focuses on covid-19

An update from our CEO

Our approach to the crisis is changing as we watch the situation in Africa with some anxiety.

Back in March last year, the predictions for Africa were dire. Imperial College were predicting 2.5 million deaths in Africa by the end of 2020. We had every reason to believe that an unthinkable disaster was on its way.

For this reason DMI mobilised very quickly. We worked with governments in all nine of the countries where we have operations: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. We produced 53 radio spots in 52 languages, plus four TV and social media spots (shown below) and reached approximately 40 million people. This was all possible thanks to the generosity of a range of donors such as GiveWell, the Skoll and Mulago Foundations, and many individual philanthropists, which allowed us to create a flexible COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund.

Fortunately the worst has not happened. At the time of writing there have been just under 90,000 recorded deaths on the continent, half of which come from one country, South Africa.

What happens next?

We still don’t know. One possibility is that the worst is yet to come. Eastern Europe was largely spared during the first European wave. At its peak in April, Poland experienced 28 deaths per day. But by late November, during the second wave, it had over 500 per day. Could that also happen in sub-Saharan Africa? Is the disaster simply delayed? We don’t yet know.

One reason for optimism is a series of seroprevalence studies showing that the virus has already spread in some places far more extensively than official testing figures show. In Madagascar, for example, one study examining blood donors in 5 cities found almost 40% of the population had antibodies to the virus, yet fewer than 300 people have officially died from COVID. This would imply a far lower case fatality rate than in Europe. Official figures may be under-recording COVID deaths, but they would need to be extremely inaccurate to explain such a phenomena. Similar studies in Kenya and Mozambique have shown the same picture, albeit less dramatically. Could it be that for a complex combination of demographic and immunological reasons Africans are less vulnerable to dying from this disease?

The last few weeks have been sobering, however. Deaths from COVID have risen in South Africa to over 500 per day, and a new variant of the virus has emerged. Deaths are also rising sharply in neighbouring countries. Malawi reported no more than one COVID-related death per day from September to December; it’s now averaging over 30 per day and rising very fast. Zambia and Mozambique are also increasing, and all three have asked for DMI’s assistance.

What’s DMI doing in response?

DMI has decided to re-instate its emergency response in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. The circumstances warrant it. We discovered during the first wave of our response that radio is a crucial source of information about COVID-19. For example, in Burkina Faso a recent survey found 81% of women cited radio as their primary source of information about COVID-19, followed by friends or acquaintances at 6%, followed by health facility staff at just 3%. Radio will be the core of our response, with TV and social media playing supportive roles.

Elsewhere, for the moment, we are more concerned by the indirect effects of COVID-19. During the Ebola crisis more people died from the secondary effects of the pandemic than from the virus itself. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the supply of and demand for health services has dropped. WHO has stressed that campaigning on treatment-seeking to increase the demand for essential health services is a top priority.

DMI has an unparalleled evidence-base for the impact of its mass media campaigns on treatment seeking, with outstanding results for malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia, and family planning. Our aim is to support governments in every country where we work, with the precise themes dictated by the need and health service capacity in each country.

We think this two-strand approach is crucial. Our hope remains that the exponential increase that we feared back in March can still be avoided.

For more information or to learn how to support our COVID-19 response, please contact

Roy Head, CEO