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COVID-19 Heroine: Minister Dora Siliya

EJS Center / COVID-19 Response  / Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine / COVID-19 Heroine: Minister Dora Siliya

Minister Dora Siliya

Minister Dora Siliya was first elected as a Member of Parliament in Zambia in 2006, representing the Petauke Central constituency. Since then, she has held several ministerial roles, including Minister of Energy and Water Development, Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Transport and Communication. In 2018, Minister Siliya was appointed as Minister of Information and subsequently named Chief Government Spokesperson by President Edgar Chagwa Lungu.

Prior to becoming an MP, Madam Siliya worked at ZNBC, the Zambian national television and radio station, rising to the role of Television Controller before pursuing a career in public service and politics. She has drawn on her broadcasting and media experience to help communicate effectively with the Zambian public during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has also spoken publicly about her own experience of contracting the virus.

We spoke with Minister Siliya about her approach to communicating effectively during the pandemic, the need to combat misinformation, and the impact the pandemic has had on women in Zambia as part of our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” initiative. This initiative highlights African women who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication to their communities, countries, and constituencies through their COVID-19 response efforts.

Read our interview with Minister Siliya below.


Q: You have had an accomplished career in public service, including serving in several ministerial positions. Could you tell us about what sparked your interest in public service and talk us through your leadership journey?

People are often surprised by my choice to pursue a public service career because nobody in my family was ever directly involved in politics. I can say, though, that I come from a very politically-minded family, because talking about the issues of the day after watching the news or reading the papers was a very normal thing in my house.

I entered the world of politics after doing some work in the development field. I realized that the power to solve a lot of problems lay with the government, and I felt that as a Zambian who had been lucky enough to get a good education, I had something to contribute. I’m very humbled to be a Member of Parliament for the Petauke Central constituency in the Eastern Province of Zambia, and for the platform it gives me.

Q: At the onset of the pandemic, you swiftly launched a sensitization and risk communication campaign to inform the Zambian public about COVID-19, explaining the importance of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) protection and prevention protocols. Could you talk a bit about your sensitization efforts?

The pandemic took everyone by surprise, so it was very much about crisis communication. The first priority was to make everyone aware of the virus, and give them the information about what they could do to protect themselves, and how to avoid contracting it. We really needed to show from the highest office in the land that this was serious. My job is to advise the President and government on effective communication­. Having the President speak to the public about COVID-19 on a regular basis was especially important, as it helped people to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

I worked with the Minister of Health to provide daily briefings to the whole nation and rally them about the pandemic and how to fight it. That was our focus for the first three months—to make sure that everyone in Zambia knew about the virus, knew how to avoid it, and knew what to do if they had it. We’ve now had over 17,000 cases in Zambia. We’ve been lucky to have only about 400 deaths, but even one death is a death too many, and we do still have more than 400 active cases today. Now, it is an ongoing concern beyond initial crisis communication, and is more so about managing the situation in terms of maintaining Zambians’ interest and awareness in the issue. After a while, people get fatigued and fall back into their old ways and habits.

Q: You have used a broad and diverse range of channels and methods to engage and communicate with constituents and disseminate important information about COVID-19. Could you talk a bit more about your approach?

Today, with digitization, there are so many ways that you have to communicate—it’s not just through traditional media like television. But we did stick with television for a live scheduled broadcast every day so that people knew when we were going to communicate. In addition to this, we livestreamed, we launched digital campaigns online, we made posters. And I went into residential compounds with a speaker on a car to try to make sure that everyone knew that this was serious and that the government was trying to keep everyone safe.

We wanted to save as many lives as possible—that’s the goal for any government during a pandemic. We had to explain to people that, while nobody had seen this virus before, our response was being guided by the WHO. Our biggest weapon was sharing information at a household level; we told people that if you don’t move, the virus doesn’t move—that was the backbone of our campaign.

Earlier on during the pandemic, when people first began talking about and questioning the effectiveness of mask-wearing, we launched a massive campaign to make sure that everyone was aware that masks were important. It was a very humbling and scary time—three months in, I caught COVID-19 myself. Even at that point, there were still people who didn’t think coronavirus was a serious thing, and some people even said it was faked as part of a campaign. On a personal level it was sad and disappointing. On a professional level I understood that it takes a while to convince people that the disease is real, and we continue to try to do that, even today.

Q: You have been very transparent and open about testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this year and about the recovery process, using it as an opportunity to educate the public about observing safety precautions like mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. Could you talk about your experience, and about why being transparent about your diagnosis was important?

 It was important to be open both to serve the nation in my capacity as Government Spokesperson, but also for my own family. I didn’t take the COVID-19 test because I was feeling ill, but because I wanted to see my mother and my grandson who I had not seen for three months. That was the reason I took the test, and it was a big surprise that it was positive, because I didn’t feel unwell.

That really brought to the fore for me how dangerous the disease could be. You could be going about your daily business feeling okay, all the while you’re infecting other people. So, of course, immediately I was concerned about everyone I’d been in contact with in the two weeks prior to my positive diagnosis. It was a scary moment, but it taught me that I had to continue to educate the nation about the dangers of the disease, particularly about being asymptomatic and still infecting other people.

Q:  The WHO has warned of the “infodemic” of misinformation that has accompanied the pandemic. How have you worked to combat misinformation about COVID-19?

We have had to create a new relationship with the public in communicating about the virus. We had to do it every day. I had to fill in the gaps for journalists, asking my colleagues and the Minister of Health questions about the disease so that people knew I was one of them, looking for the right answers. I also had to keep repeating that if we listen to news that wasn’t medically correct, it could prove to be very dangerous.

We also had a big issue in Zambia where it was being widely shared on the internet that if you drank alcohol, this would get the COVID-19 virus out of your system. This was very dangerous because a lot of people believed it, and felt that the more they drank the better it would be for them. We had to do so much work online, on radio, on TV, even holding face-to-face meetings to try and connect with opinion leaders, chiefs, minibus drivers, youth leaders. We had to explain that the best way to keep safe was to wear a mask, to social distance, and to practice good hygiene.

Of course, Zambia is not unique. People have faced the same problems the world over. That is why it has been important to have a reputable spokesperson to continue to share the right information—accurate information that was coming directly from the medical field.

Q:  Is there anything you have learned through leading the Ministry of Information during COVID-19 that you would want to share with other leaders in countries across Africa, or around the world?

The most important lesson is that disasters will come. You will never be 100% prepared but you have to act as quickly as possible. One of the best things we did as a government was to mount a central approach. We recognized that this wasn’t just a health issue, it was an economic issue, a social issue, it was an issue that affected women. We had to mobilize very quickly and mount a multi-sectoral response that even included the police—some people just wanted to flout the regulations, and it could be difficult to ask people to close their businesses when they were wondering how to feed their family.

I think the lesson we learned from this is that you need to be able to work as a unit in government, particularly the cabinet, because when something this big happens you must gel together. At the beginning, it was more of a health issue. Now, it is much more of an economic challenge.

Q:  Have you seen COVID-19 impacting women and men differently in Zambia? If so, what are some of the issues that disproportionately affect women?

In the beginning women were reacting and responding much faster to the threats posed by COVID-19. It took men a lot longer to realize and appreciate just how dangerous the virus is. I think that women have been more aware of how to protect their families, and men often are working in situations and environments where it is difficult to social distance.

However, throughout the pandemic it has been women who are affected more, economically speaking. If the markets or shops close, it is mostly women, who are the primary workers in those businesses, who lose their income. I think now everybody in Zambia appreciates that the pandemic is real, and they need to take action, but its impact has definitely been different on men and women.

Q:  What role have Zambian women played in the country’s COVID-19 response?

Our government was always very concerned that in a pandemic like this, women become very vulnerable. They lose access to their income, and they worry about their children. We responded from an economic point of view providing aid packages and stimulus packages for a lot of businesses owned by women.

I think what we’ve all learned as women is that we have to continue to share information about health, about business, about family, so that whenever challenges like this one find us, we are prepared. We can’t resolve issues like this immediately, but at least at a household level we can be as prepared as possible. We have to encourage women to have different sources of income, we have to encourage women to be educated. We also need to ensure that women can use the internet positively, so that they can get accurate information, so that they can share information quickly, and that they feel confident enough to cope in a crisis.

I also think that, being in my position, as a woman, shows lots of young girls that it is possible for a woman to lead even in a crisis. I’m grateful to the President, who recognized my role, and I’m grateful to the women who would call, worrying about my health, throughout the pandemic. I think that I’ve played a good role model, and I’m sure that there will be many women after me, just like there have been before me, who, in their significant leadership positions, will forge the path forward though times of crisis.

But I also think women have led COVID-19 responses at all levels. In markets, it was women who led the cleaning exercises. And it was women who led at many schools and church organizations in communities across Zambia. I think that one thing women’s responses have shown is that women always have a leadership role in any society.