Thursday, July 2, 2020

Obeying mask-wearing law has become a matter of choice

With as much knowledge as is being dispensed daily in public media going back at least three months, most Batswana would now have PhD-level knowledge about COVID-19. They know that this is an airborne disease and that wearing masks can help control its spread. And, the very first health guideline of the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020, which were adopted at a special session of parliament, makes mask-wearing a legal requirement.

However, if Section 2 (3) (a) (ii) (aa) of those regulations means anything at all, why is it that everywhere you look, some people in public places are not wearing “a face mask or home-made item that covers the person’s nose and mouth”?Last Friday, in the Kgale Hill Mall near Game City, around nine in the morning, the writer counted at least 15 people who were either not wearing masks or not wearing them in the precise manner stipulated in the law. Two hours later, in the village of Ranaka, which lies to the west of the A1 Highway, the level of non-compliance was even higher. A good many people walking through the streets were either maskless or had their masks around the neck.

Interestingly, a slow-moving police van, possibly from Kanye which is visible from Ranaka, just drove past a group of people who were not wearing masks when its occupants should have stopped to enforce the law – levy a P5000 fine. Similar lack of non-compliance was observed at Mogobane and Ntlhantlhe, which lie along the road to Ranaka. If the enforcement of mask-wearing law is weak at the Kgale Hill Mall as well as in Ranaka, Mogobane and Ntlhantlhe, it is virtually non-existent at the Gaborone bus rank, which is Botswana’s largest transit hub. The bus rank brings together hawkers (stationary and mobile), public transport workers, passengers and an assortment of criminals. There is brisk trade in snacks – which are eaten a few short seconds after purchase. Eating a hot dog or banana or peanuts or sweets requires taking off the mask and so, all the people who are chewing something (and there are many of them at any one minute) are not complying with Section 2 (3) (a) (ii) (aa). During this observation, two police officers headed towards the overhead bridge, stopped and cautioned three people (out of many more) who had masks around their necks.

The lawbreakers promptly complied and the officers move on past many more people who were also not complying with the mask-wearing law, whom they didn’t take action against.The mask-wearing law is also not being observed by public drinkers. Ideally, bars should remain closed because the pleasurable feeling from alcohol can’t be more important than containing the spread of a pandemic that is killing people across the globe. Alcohol also weakens the immune system – which the body needs to resist COVID-19 infection. However, there is realisation that from Kgalagadi Breweries Limited plants to gastropubs to bars to bottle stores, the liquor trade is an important economic activity that employs a lot of people and earns the government the much-needed tax money.

On the basis of these and other considerations, the government has decided to open up liquor trade but with reduced trading hours. While instructions from the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry are that customers should not drink on the premises, some drinkers have reverted to a pre-COVID-19 practice of drinking in the parking lot of places that sell alcohol. Not only do people who do this not wear masks, they also don’t observe social distancing. When parliament descended into chaos at its first special session, the Coordinator of the COVID-19 Taskforce, Dr. Kereng Masupu, warned MPs that talking loud as they were could aid the spread of the virus.  Talking loud is par for the course for knots of merrymakers who have reverted to gathering in parking lots outside bars, most of them maskless.

Thereafter, they go home and interact maskless with those whom they live with. Perhaps the best advice for how to deal with this additional public health crisis comes from a man who now rests at his final resting place at a cemetery in Serowe. More than a decade ago, mysterious fires flared up at two army barracks and investigators found placards with writing about what were otherwise genuine concerns strewn about at the crime scenes. The culprits were never caught and one conspiracy theory that gained traction during this time was that directors of a certain company that had lost a lucrative army tender were behind these fires and were leaving behind the placards to cover their tracks. When speaking about these arson incidents in parliament, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Mahalapye MP, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, said that the Botswana Defence Force should sniff out the culprits and deal with them “ruthlessly.”

In a broader sense, Merafhe, a former BDF commander who would later become Vice President, was presenting a shorthand version of the deterrence theory – which the Roman Catholic Church has successfully and ruthlessly used. When Protestants began to challenge Catholicism, millions of people died during the Middle Ages and the Papacy was either directly or indirectly involved. A New York Times bestseller says that in some instances, Protestants condemned to death would be put to death in unusually cruel ways. Some had each one of their four limbs separately tied to as many horses at a well-attended public square. When the executioner cracked the whip, all four horses would run in different directions and the result would be a stomach-turning sight. The book says that it is precisely of this barbaric executions that the Catholic Church was able to stem the tide of Protestant dissent and ultimately contain it to manageable levels.

Obviously, the Botswana government can’t do what the Roman Catholic Church was able to in the 15th century but there is an acceptable manner in which it can deter non-compliance with COVID-19 law. Verbal cautions by the police are evidently insufficient but if the enforcement of this law became more stringent and people had to either part with P5000 or be imprisoned, the rate of compliance would go up. In the past, the police have undertaken the “kgomo-khumo” (cattle is wealth) operation countrywide in order to deter stocktheft. In like manner, it can undertake an aggressive “botsogo-khumo” (health is wealth) operation that targets those who are not complying with mask-wearing law.

In much the same manner that stock thieves were named and shamed on Btv, those who don’t wear masks should not only be charged and imprisoned, they should also be named and shamed on Btv.There is very simple reason for that: these are desperate times and we need desperate measures to deal with a virus whose level of penetration in the country we remain clueless about.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.