Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Batswana men are Covid-19 heroes and victims too

When the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) officials surveyed the ravages of Botswana’s Covid-19 pandemic, their gaze was focused on women.

In its report, “COVID-19: A Gender Lens – Botswana” UNFPA states that: “Women represent 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally and special attention should be given to how their work environment may expose them to discrimination, as well as thinking about their sexual and reproductive health and psycho social needs as frontline health workers.”

While this gendered truth flies on the face of the factual truth, it goes a long way towards explaining Botswana’s biased feminist interpretation of the pandemic and its social effects.

The factual truth is that, when Covid -19 hit Botswana in 2020, more than 80% of the first confirmed cases were truck drivers. As at July 2020 when Botswana recorded the first 739 Covid-19 cases, 620 were male truck drivers who tested positive at the country’s entry points, suggesting that they were more exposed to infection than the country’s frontline workers. Imagine how Botswana and the rest of the world would have reacted had more than 80% of Botswana’s first 700 cases been women! By now we would all know what the long term effects of this trauma on women is likely to be.

Despite these testosteronic statistics, Botswana’s Covid-19 risk-o-meter has always had a female face. Throughout the pandemic, Botswana truck drivers risked their lives everyday, driving from one pandemic hot-spot to another to bring us food, medication and other essentials that made our lives bearable during lockdowns.

Curiously, when Botswana’s frontline workers were exalted as national heroines and heroes who risked their lives to save fellow Batswana from the pandemic, truck drivers did not share in the public recognition for their life-saving role in the fight against Covid-19.

Besides all being truck drivers, this cadre of unsung heroes also share another thing in common – they are all men.  On the other hand, as per UNFPA’s statistics, women represent 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally who were celebrated as Covid-19 heroes. You do the math.

This is not an isolated case of feminist bias in interpreting the social impact of Covid-19 in Botswana, but part of a pattern.

Although statistics suggested that these truck drivers were more at risk of infection than any section of society,  headline writes academic researchers and feminist advocates portrayed doctors, nurses and battered wives as Botswana’s biggest at risk groups from the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns.

Investigations by Sunday Standard Lifestyle revealed that at the height of  COVID-19 lockdowns,  border trips for truckers were a nightmare. They were forced to take routine tests, had to wait up to five days for results and suffered the worst of the initial stigma of the disease which was shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories. Conditions at the border check were awful, with no food vendors or proper toilets. Surely, this trauma has scared some of them for life.

And this was only one part of the problem. Forced to work over 40 hours a week and having to sleep for days in their trucks while awaiting test results, they were more likely than other cadres including frontline workers, to develop burnout and other psychological conditions. While there is a dearth of local research information on how this affected them, there is no shortage of research data on how the pandemic affected women.

Global research on the other hand has revealed that following long working hours due to Covid -19, burnout is becoming a problem for men worldwide.

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang says, “Burnout is a slow-burn, so to speak. It creeps up on men, with gradual symptoms that increase over time. These signs are red flags telling you that there’s something wrong with your situation and that it’s time to step back and assess your life. But today, everyone has too much to do, too little time, too many demands, and endless to-do lists. We wear being busy as a badge of honour and assume something’s wrong if we’re not overworked or multi-tasking. So, it’s no wonder that burnout has evolved. It is time to give men a break from these unrealistic and detrimental expectations. Men need to be supported to take care of themselves and have the freedom to admit when they are at their limit and seek help.”

This jaundiced look at men who bear battle scars from the Covid-19 fight may actually be cloaking an insidious national social problem – subtle , but with very harmful effects. The truth about a patriarchal society like Botswana is that it  equates masculinity with being a stoical wage earner. Research shows that men and women face traumas differently.  The signature patterns in male job related traumas reflect an enduring breadwinner ethos, which is reinforced by societal stereotypes as reflected by how the media and academic researchers gendered and interpreted Botswana’s Covid-19 social risks. This characteristic cynicism has its roots in the ethic of stoical duty our society has instilled in boys and men for decades. “Go to work, and shut up about it. If you can put food on the table, then you’re a good father.”

As a result, when men encounter trauma at work or elsewhere in their lives, they are much less likely than women to talk about it, in either public or private.  Besides, men are about 40 percent less likely than women to seek counseling for any reason. And the well-documented crisis in male friendship means that many men have no one aside from their spouse or partner they feel they can open up with emotionally. Single men often have no one at all and have to suffer in solitude.

Clinical psychologist in Gaborone, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The breadwinner ethos is a faulty masculinization of a noble ideal — that even those who do not work still deserve to eat. It is shared by men and women alike. It’s a source of meaning for countless people who labor in difficult conditions so that their children won’t have to. It is also hard to live up to. This lingering ideal has been devastating for many blue-collar men, who pinned their self-worth to the notion that they were providers even as their job prospects diminished.”


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