At this point everybody knows what COVID-19 is, how it spreads and how it kills. Oddly though, some people still think nothing of playing Russian Roulette with this deadly virus. That is the exact game you play when you walk around maskless or improperly masked. It is tragic that a year after the pandemic struck, Botswana’s law enforcement and some members of the public have not given the wearing of face masks the importance it deserves.
That wearing a mask is the most effective preventative measure against COVID-19 is backed by solid science. In the United States, an experiment using high-speed video found that hundreds of droplets ranging from 20 to 500 micrometers were generated when saying a simple phrase, but that nearly all these droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth. An infected man who flew from China to Toronto, Canada, wearing a mask, but all 25 people closest to him on the flight tested negative for the disease. Likewise, two hair stylists in the US had close contact with 140 clients while sick with COVID-19 but none of the clients tested positive because everyone wore a mask. There is research that says that 80 percent of the population wearing masks would do more to reduce COVID-19 spread than a strict lockdown. Botswana’s compliance rate falls way below that threshold and both the government and members of the public are to blame.
Enforcement of mask wearing law has been weak from day one (April 1, 2020) and if the situation is concerning in urban areas, it is catastrophic in rural areas. The Botswana Police Service has been the weakest link in the chain in as far as enforcement goes. In Gaborone, uniformed police officers have been observed to ignore people that they encounter on the streets not wearing masks properly.
There is awareness upstairs that enforcement of COVID-19 law is weak because when he appeared on Btv sometime last year, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Kabelo Ebineng, said that he was aware of public concern that the police were not doing enough. His response was that the police are too thin on the ground to adequately enforce COVID-19 law. He was only half right because for what remains an unclear reason, the police have yet to apply a tactic that has been applied by law enforcement going back years.
Evidently, the government sees any value in naming and shaming offenders. Going back to the administration of President Festus Mogae, the Directorate on Crime and Economic Corruption routinely had names of suspects who had been charged with corruption published in newspapers. Not only did that practice continue during the administration of his successor, President Ian Khama, another name-and-shame layer was added: names of motorists convicted of drunk driving were routinely published in the Botswana Daily News. Towards the end of Khama’s administration, a third layer was added: parading stock theft suspects on Btv. DCEC seems to have stopped naming and shaming suspects; while sporadic, names of convicted drunk drivers are still published; and no stock theft suspect has been paraded on Btv since the start of COVID-19.
Why isn’t this tactic being used with those who violate COVID-19 law? There are people who have been arrested for violation of mask law and if the government thinks that public shaming of offenders works, it should use this tactic. Interestingly, many more governments have the same belief. In the US, arrested suspects (perpetrators) are routinely made to walk through a public place. The “perp-walk” as it commonly termed, creates an opportunity for the media to take photographs and video of the event. Those who have sought to align the perp walk with virtue claim that it yields tactical benefit to law enforcement in that it sends a message that no one is above the law, deters criminal behaviour, encourages witnesses to come forward and restores public confidence in law enforcement.
Part of the reason President Mokgweetsi Masisi has had to extend curfew by two hours is that the infection rate is going up exponentially and the healthcare system has been overwhelmed. Part of the reason that is happening is because at one level, obeying COVID-19 laws has become a matter of choice. It is common knowledge that in order to circumvent the law that limits trading hours for businesses that sell alcohol, some bar owners have turned their homes into shebeens that operate almost round the clock. The screening stations at some workplaces have become part of the décor because they lie unattended for hours on end. By and by, people are distancing themselves from physical distancing.
On the whole, democracies are failing to contain COVID-19 because they tend to overindulge the whims of a populace that fails to realise that fighting and defeating the pandemic necessarily require the suspension of civil liberties. This is a point that liberal democracies are never going to concede but dictatorships are doing a much better job of containing the spread of the virus. The Botswana situation is confusing with President Masisi’s invocation of state-of-emergency powers. He essentially sought dictatorial powers, was granted such powers by parliament but oddly, is not using them. One way of doing so would be to treat those who willfully disobey mask-wearing law as criminals and punish them as such because their actions are literally costing lives.
Everybody is understandably anxious to get back to normal life and Batswana can learn from countries where citizens can themselves made that happen. New Zealand has been able to contain spread virus not just because it is wealthy, isolated and instituted the strictest lockdown but also because the residents cooperated with the government, especially by wearing masks. In Botswana, people who promised they would observe all the public health guidelines if liquor trade was opened up, now sit in horse-shoe formations every evening, especially on weekends, maskless and not physically-distanced, and shoot the bull in very loud voices until very late.