Depolarising a nation on pins and needles

Prior to last week, it had never crossed my mind that a pandemic could polarise us as a nation. We are caught up in a wild raging tizzy, not of excitement and optimism, but of mounting uncertainty and desperation.

Last week, excitement levels swirled, thanks to the much-anticipated roof-raising announcement that invited the 45 to 54 age-bracket for COVID-19 vaccine inoculation. The flaring positive storm quickly fizzled into a feeble damp squib when a ‘retraction,’ for many people sounding more like an anticlimactic afterthought, came through, advising about the shortage of vaccines. The nation has now descended into a raucous state of anxiety.

After a visibly shaken and apologetic nurse at Matebeleng Clinic informed me, as early as 9am, that they had reached their day’s threshold of 100 people, I found myself overstrung by emotions, struggling to maintain a rational demeanour and wondering whether the nation was briskly sliding down the failure curve. My expectation was that the clinic would be busy for another nine hours. Verklempt, I nearly gave in to pressure to melt and flow with the crowd, wondering whether the relevant ministry’s left hand had no idea what the right was doing.

Call me naïve if it floats your boat, but I convinced myself there was no way an accountable government, comprising people whose loved ones are also falling victim to the deadly virus, could dare pursue a path of breach of decency by engaging in mischievous ploys. If the opposite holds true, certainly the problem is not me, but the people driving the sly agenda, which can only feed a steep erosion of trust.

I figured a mature man must always rise above his emotions. Though a part of me felt the jig was up, I wondered whether there were important perspectives worthy of consideration.

Allow me to think aloud. While we can’t give credence to the idea that slow and steady wins the race, before condemning the government, shouldn’t we equip ourselves with knowledge first? Do we appreciate the full range of challenges encountered by the Task Force in procuring vaccines? Do we know how many vaccines have been ordered and when that happened? What about the cost thereof? Do we appreciate what the impact of the fourth wave in the US is on our sourcing strategy? Do we care about the hoarding of vaccines by developed nations despite the 14th of May 2020 letter signed by over 140 leaders including former president Festus Mogae, calling for the equitable distribution of vaccines? The said letter that was coordinated by UNAIDS and Oxfam stated, “Governments...must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge.”

While we appreciate that for good reason, people are frustrated and hurting, would you say we have nonetheless evolved into a nation cursed with a posse of moaners, mopes and calamity howlers inflamed with a divisive polemic spirit? Have you seen the flurry of overheated flippant growls and rabble-rousing social media posts rooted in disgruntlement, but tinged with an impulsive splurge of chronic dyspepsia and vapid mudslinging? To be fair, well-reasoned posts have also flooded the marketplace of opinions. Since lives are at stake, the sharp axe having already fallen on a fraction of our loved ones, isn’t it reasonable for us to engage in measured conversations about COVID-19 without blowing a fuse?

If you think I am advocating a permissive hands-off populace that cannot be bothered by what the government says and does, you are awfully mistaken. Neither am I suggesting that my views are any more legitimate than yours. This is not a guileful sophistry to muzzle you. All sincere people deserve to be heard, and it is acceptable for them to stand their ground. That’s the inherent disputatious beauty and unique universality of democracy.

Whereas considered opinions should be allowed to percolate the national discourse, may we never forget that the way we express our views is nearly as important as the message we seek to communicate, hence the need to pepper our words with a sanitising spin, without necessarily diluting crucial content.

Shouldn’t a sincere yearning for saving lives drive us to ask difficult questions and agitate for straightforward answers? Doesn’t an all-out excoriation of concerned people only achieve the unintended result of forcing them to adopt a defensive default-mode of clutching tightly to their narratives? How far can a profusion of toxic content take us if it is used as a brambly political cudgel for enforcing accountability? Should we allow a strong sense of amour-propre to prompt us to obsess over our differences while our country is on fire and our unity is precariously sidling towards a vertiginous cliff? In view of the fact that we pride ourselves in the quintet pillars of self-reliance, consultation, equity, inclusivity and unity; a powerful value system that we dare not jettison, isn’t all this offensive bickering way beneath us? Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if we trivialised our challenge to a puerile competition of ‘who can outdo the other in waxing indignant’ by evoking blunt sarcasm rather than subtle rapier-sharp prose?

Authorities must appreciate that nothing wags the tongue of the citizenry quite like perceived deception. People normally thrown into anxiety fits whenever they catch a glimpse of a seemingly errant nipple of ostensive untruth, albeit briefly, popping through state-sanctioned décolletage of back-and-forth contradictory communiqué. Social media is chockablock with a catalogue of strawmanning and unconstructive ad hominem attacks, mostly targeting the one man who has to his credit conscientiously assembled a team of professionals, meant, not to be silent partners in the war waged against the hydra-headed enemy, but active and courageous on-ground commandoes fully equipped with the wherewithal and the resources essential to emerge victorious. Independent-minded people endowed with the IQ and the integrity to engage the president on this thorny issue of national importance and offer viable solutions thereto! In rigidly holding one man accountable, are we masking our profound congenital endorsement for perceived underperformance and unwittingly camouflaging our insidious erosion of values essential for accountability and its angelic twin sister, performance?

By virtue of his position, the president is primarily responsible for progress made. In as much as he would revel at the throwing of bouquets at him for good performance, he should also accept deserved sideswipes for underperformance. While appreciating the principle espoused in the globally acclaimed words uttered by the 33rd president of the US, Harry Truman, “The buck stops here;” an unqualified and unhypocritical commitment to accountability by the man at the helm of the nation’s highest office, the truth is, it is counter-intuitive to persistently hold the president solely responsible for everything that goes wrong in the country. A baffling lack of logic lurks in focusing on seeking to enforce accountability by isolating one man and engaging in inane palooka tactics by aggressively pummeling him with a slugfest of rabbit punches. Shouldn’t we aim a fraction of our uppercuts at the team of professionals working alongside the president? Have they played their part in creating a stable ambient environment conducive to making informed decisions? In view of the recent spike in deaths and the giant leap in new cases, the Task Force should not take it personal when citizens keep a weather eye on them.

It makes sense to hold the ruling party accountable for government’s performance. But an entrenched culture of indiscriminately choosing to relegate issues of accountability to partisan politics might in some cases be anti-progressive. I don’t think the Task Force is necessarily opposed to entertaining useful ideas from the populace. We would probably be less than candid if we ever accused these professionals of propensity to indulge in hole-and-corner manoeuvres. Any one of us can write to them, stating our concerns and how, in our view, the government can best deal with the monster that has already devoured some of our loved ones. They can ill-afford to invest their attitude in a hubristic perspective that suggests they are beyond scrutiny. What I doubt though, is whether they have the inclination or the time to rummage through a dense spiny thicket of negative posts in the social media.

The nation is surely on the qui vive and understandably so, but if we conscientiously prevail over the temptation to surrender our sense of reasoning to our fragile egos, we can all contribute meaningfully towards depolarising our beloved nation, that for now, is unfortunately on pins and needles, but certainly not doomed.

The capstone of my argument is, rather than spit in the wind, why not save our enthusiasm for a platform where it can make a difference! May we snap out of the self-importance mode, knowing full well that shouting from the touchline like a lame-duck head coach is always a painless cakewalk. Yes, we all tend to creep closer to a perfect vision the further we are from the throne, simply because power tends to be a little typhlotic.

Editor's Comment
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