Saturday, May 30, 2020

Social distancing in densely populated areas

As the COVID-19 rages, leaving economic and social devastation on its trail, the suggested social distancing might seem like a plausible idea for the prevention of the spread of the disease. After all, the deadly virus is said to be transmitted through fomites and droplets resulting from human to human contact or human to object contact.  Whilst everyone is looking up to facilities and medical personnel for relief in detection, isolation, treatment and containment of the COVID-19, there is little or no emphasis on behavioural change for those on the receiving end for these services. President, Mokgweetsi Masisi has said: “Our ultimate salvation, if left to ourselves will be ourselves and how we behave. Because we don’t have the sophistication of the industry and the scientific prowess to even manufacture these testing kits.”  

Hence, Batswana may have to rely on behavioural change for survival as they did during the scourge of HIV /AIDS, should an outbreak occur within our borders.  Community and cluster transmission may be posing as a looming threat for the COVID-19 for  Batswana whose belief in social norms and customs is deep seated as core values that normally brings the entire community together into one place for social events, with each attendee as they grace the occasion are silently ticking boxes of cooperation, togetherness, unity, and botho from the vigilant eye of the society, whose reiteration of these values cannot go without notice echoing in expressions like ‘mabogo dinku aa thebana’ or matlo go sha mabapi’.  Dr Lucky W. Odirile, Director of Careers and Counselling Centre, University of Botswana, has said Batswana are “touchy people “ who believe in closeness, they can be eating and drinking together from the same utensils, they can drink water from the same cup without washing it, sleep on the same mattress, share a single room. Over the years this has become collective ideals for our nation.  With the outbreak of coronavirus disease, Batswana’s core values may be rattled to the core.  

Implementation of the recommendations from the Ministry of Health and Wellness may take time to be observed as they may be contradicting the longheld practices of gathering together in numbers to celebrate or support each other like in weddings and funerals. Whereupon elaborate greetings and speeches about lineage and tracing are of great importance.  Greetings in Setswana culture silently communicates honour, integrity, and respect. They involve hugging and kissing, shaking hands firmly and for an extended period of time while learning about the health of so and so back home, and even kneeling in front of the elderly and bowing down. As a result, any withholding and distancing may be viewed with suspicion. “The regulation that calls for social distancing, is not just new but may  be viewed as challenging who we are as a people and may require a lot of sensitization to destigmatize”, cautioned Dr Odirile. 

“Even the way we communicate, we may share messages through whispering” added Dr Odirile. Moreover, anyone that does not mingle and greet people through shaking hands, hugging and kissing and getting close to the people, may be seen as motho oo mabihe, that is, shunning and belittling others.  “The spread of HIV/AIDS in the past, was made rampant by an idea that wearing gloves when giving assistance to an infected person was tantamount to shunning them. Additionally, withholding a kiss or touch especially when there were wounds was viewed as a sign of not caring enough or not loving such a person. Similarly, the idea of not touching or kissing for fear of contracting or transmitting the COVID-19, may be dismissed at first and taken lightly and mistaken for an attitude of shunning others or treated as antipathy”, Bonny Moapare, Counsellor, explains.  

Funeral attendance forms an important part in Setswana culture. As a matter of fact, a funeral that attracts large scores of people is often viewed as showing that indeed the deceased has received a pleasant send off. People will often say, “o hitlhegile” (meaning the person received a dignified burial) if people came in numbers.  Perhaps a large number may be comforting to the bereaved family and may contribute to the grieving process as the family derives some comfort from the presence, resulting in some assurance that indeed their loved one will ‘rest in peace’. In contrast, a person whose burial attracts a small number of mourners is often treated as a sign that the person was not sociable or was a modidi wa nta ya tlhogo (a pauper) and cannot attract people from far and near.  For social distancing to be effective especially when encountering a culture like the Setswana one, the campaigns must be rigorous. “Basis for behavioural change is education”, Moapare says.  

Some Batswana understand the importance of attending funerals in fewer numbers as stipulated in the regulation. As a matter of fact, social media commentary has been buzzing with the matter of fewer numbers and no meals, citing that this will ease the burden off the bereaved family. “The challenge may be to control the numbers”, Moapare told the Sunday Standard.  Meals are also an important part of any social gathering in Botswana. Any prohibition in the form of health regulations in response to any health threat such as in the COVID-19 case, or simply because the family cannot afford to make provisions because of financial problems, may attract scorn and ridicule to the family from the community. Interestingly though, meals provided during funerals by a poor family, may be shunned by some from well off families.  Whilst provision of meals may be burdensome to families that do not have the financial muscle to provide food and refreshments throughout the week until the burial, the family may be under intense pressure from the community to redeem their image that’s already lying in disrepute and shame for their social status.

Batswana often say “leso lele le ne le nonne”, meaning there was enough food for everyone. It still remains to be seen whether Batswana will suspend this archaic practice during occasions as some seem to continue the practice as witnessed by this Publication.  “We’ve a condition that did not exist when we were forming our values as Batswana. The virus did not exist then. This virus is now taking those collective ideals head on. People may feel threatened from their position of comfort”, explained C. Bitsang, Clinical Psychologist, University of Botswana.  “Now the requirement is social distancing. It is not saying the values are wrong. The Tswana values are perfect. They have served us well. They have made us as a people. However, for purposes of health, the requirements are preventative measures, to minimise the spread of the virus and we must observe them”, she added.  

The measures are temporary. Bitsang further says, “the measures are a better way. Probably the only way to halt a looming possibility of the pandemic. It is not an attack on any particular culture. Besides, a large number may add more harm than good and in an event of infection, if about 200 people attended, then we’re looking at a possibility of over double or worst still quadruple the number of infections through contact, making contact tracing cumbersome if not impossible.” Wedding celebrations are also highly regarded by Batswana as an opportunity to showcase their support and an occasion to also celebrate together. Yet others may use them an opportunity to show their ability to pull off a wedding whose success borders on that of royalty; a celebration that will be the ‘talk of the town’. A common expression for such weddings is, “go ja ntsa e feta le tsela”, meaning that food was in abundance. Can Batswana manage to temporarily suspend this important practice until the COVID-19 pandemic, like a cloud dissipates?

 “Batswana should learn creative ways of thanking those who came to support them during a time of difficulty or celebrations such as giving visitors vouchers or meal coupons to use at places they may have made arrangements with”, Bitsang advised.  “After all provision of meals at occasions or funerals is mainly to thank the people for support”, she highlighted.  As most Batswana, especially in the densely populated areas like Old Naledi, Mogoditshane and Tlokweng where descent housing is a challenge, many may be overcrowded in single-roomed households. Some share utensils, 10 or so people share a single toilet making social distancing problematic.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.