The Sefhare-Ramokgonami MP, Dr. Kesitegile Gobotswang, still insists that it is terribly misguided to take punitive action against people who don’t comply with a new legal requirement to wear face masks as a COVID-19 health measure.Earlier this month, parliament met to debate the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020 which require people to wear cloth face masks in public. The penalty for not wearing a mask is P5000.
Contributing to the debate, Gobotswang said that rather than punish people, the government should instead provide education for why it was necessary for them to wear masks. More than a fortnight later, mask-wearing has become a deeply entrenched social norm. However, there are still some people either walking about mask-less, dangling masks from their necks or covering the mouth only when the law requires the covering of both the mouth and nose.Sunday Standard followed up on what Gobotswang had said in parliament by asking him whether it wasn’t time to take punitive action against not complying with the mask-wearing law.
His answer was in the negative, with the explanation that generally, it takes a considerable period of time for public health messages to seep in.“Failing to wear masks should not be criminalised,” says Gobotswang, who is also the Deputy President of the Botswana Congress Party, which is one third of the Umbrella for Democratic Change coalition.On elaborating the latter point, he notes that mask-wearing should be implemented no differently from other public health frameworks used to fight smoking and diseases like HIV/AIDS.“For a long time now, there has been public education on smoking and that education is still going on,” says Gobotswang adding that smoking has never been criminalised.
“The same thing should be done with mask-wearing because it is also a behavioural issue. Any public health professional knows that it takes a long time to change people’s behaviour.”He expresses concern that the government’s public health messaging lacks rigour and resultantly, has not yielded the desired response from members of the public. He gives an example of the bereaved families not complying with the COVID-19 health regulations as a direct result of lackadaisical public health education.The MP also expresses worry that penalizing non-compliance will disproportionately affect the poor because they are less likely to receive public health education.
In service of the latter assertion, he says that on account of working and living off the grid, cattle herders would not have received this education. Whatever the validity of his arguments, there is having to face up to the fact that there is a sub-set of (mostly young) people who are wilfully resisting the mask-wearing law and endangering public health. While he accepts that this is happening, Gobotswang hastens to add that it is to be expected that unlike adults, the youth will display wayward behaviour because they still lack mental maturity.
He stresses the important of targeting the youth with age- and platform-appropriate public health messages. His recommendation is that with its easy-going approach, social media would be a more appropriate channel for such messages than Radio Botswana 1 which, with its native inclination towards serious content, would just turn young people off.