Motswana psychoanalyst, Batetshi Matenge, reflecting on the 12 new COVID-19 cases in Botswana, wrote, “This is the time when we depend on each other for our [very] lives.
We need each other to respond from a place of principle and ethic.”
The truth in this is embedded in an honest introspection of our collective behaviours following the easing of the extreme social distancing measures at the end of May 2020. This is in no way a suggestion that people go out of their way to negligently expose themselves to infection. Rather, it is a call to honestly question our individual failures to collectively support the State in fighting this very terrifying disease, whether they were deliberate, or in response to some natural instinct.
Human behaviour experts, social scientists and public health experts observe that the trajectory of pandemics is shaped by human behaviour at both an individual level, as well as collectively.
It is from this understanding that measures and interventions such as extreme social distancing, often referred to a lockdown, as well as isolation derive from. An understanding of “social networks” helps one with an evaluation of the extent of effectiveness of the distancing strategies.
The expectation, although perhaps not clearly articulated as such, was that, following the easing of the lockdown or the extreme social distancing, that we would limit our contact to few repeated contacts, similar in nature to social bubbles.
For example, for a person who is employed, their workplace would be a place they frequent, with their colleagues as frequent contacts. Another person, who has missed a child with whom they do not ordinarily live, could expand their bubble to include contact with that child.
To this extent, measures such as limiting the numbers of people in one place were introduced and extended even in the various stages of easing lockdown.
Other measures, such as registration when entering a store, or public place of any sort, were continued. This of course is critical for contact tracing in the event that a positive case is identified amongst those who have visited certain locations.
All these measures, including the imposition of travel embargoes and closing schools, have been successful in flattening the curve in other pandemics in the past.
As time passed, and with more relaxation of measures, other less stringent measures were introduced to cushion the economy and specifically the alcohol and transport industries.
This translated to the expansions of social bubbles, by the increased numbers of people who can be in one place. The interesting point to reflect on here, is that human behaviour and specifically “social networks” when stringent measures are eased, has never been an area of focus for any studies conducted in Botswana.
This was perhaps one of the mistakes of the task force – a failure to anticipate, at least at a formal and public level, the behaviours of people once measures are eased, and how to mitigate in ways which would continue to flatten the curve as successfully as Botswana had, with this present pandemic.
Cautionary statements, informing people not to drink in public spaces except restaurants, and to avoid gatherings, were more on the basis of, “Kana Batswana bone rea ba itse”.
The latter is obviously as valid as any scientific research, because it points to an understanding of the social behaviours of a people, a local human behavioural science theory, if you will.
However, that knowledge and caution were not accompanied by measures which illustrate the understanding of this problem. That said, we cannot, as a people, also have paternalistic expectations of a government we are always questioning and trying to hold accountable.
There are responsibilities, which we arguably have, in ensuring that government measures are not compromised by negligent behaviour, especially now.
This is a time, when our actions, at individual level, and collectively, have a bearing on our lives and the lives of others, including those who, as a result of their professions are ethically mandated to put their lives at risk for us.
Both our autonomy and agency therefore, have to be exercised with a more active appreciation of the extent of our connectedness. The efficiency of the measures is completely on the basis of our acceptance of them.
The objective of this piece is to request that we prioritise our lives and those of the people around us, even in the periods post-lockdown, or in-between lockdowns, as it were. It is an invitation to temporarily abandon the “if I die, I die” carefree approach to life, and that we strictly stay alive to the fact that we are so much more connected than we realise and that as a result, nobody is immune to COVID-19.
We have to, in support of the measures already in place, ensure selective contact reduction, that each of us, at various levels, can effectively adopt and control.
We need to recognise the ways in which our behaviours reduce the network distances, in ways of exposing newer bubbles to our own networks. We therefore have to limit our own contacts, even when we are very sure that we are in the green.
This simple choice, which we really have the power of making at individual level, can make a vast difference. It would most certainly decrease the rate of infection as well as the number of infected persons, while the epidemic is rife. It would reduce the number of people infected by a person who is or may already be infected. We need to essentially limit the extent of our social contact.