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Southern Africa: Identity, behaviour change communication and Covid-19

Most of us are by now aware of the basic facts about the Covid-19 pandemic and its bewildering socio-cultural and economic impact across the world.

By Phillip Santos

At the time of writing this article, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had recorded close to 2 500 000 confirmed cases and more than 160 000 deaths globally, although these figures are projected to keep rising for a foreseeable future.

Because of the new coronavirus pandemic, economic activities have been ground to a halt, extraordinary measures have been activated in response to the outbreak, our natural penchant to commune with other people is going through fundamental transformation, humanity’s impact on the environment has become glaringly clear for all to see in the absence or because of severe limitations to industrial activity and vehicular movement, and the economic fault lines manifested through inequalities and inequities in society have been exposed to their very bare bones.

As we have been reminded countless times, the virus does not privilege any social group over the other, but its impact is experienced and suffered disparately thanks to contextual variations in social privilege. It is dynamics around this point that I wish to address in this article.

Nothing beats effective communication when dealing with communicable diseases whose spread is highly contingent on people’s behaviour and the way they interact with their immediate environment.

Such messages must be lucid about the nature of the problem, sensitive to socio-cultural and economic dimensions of the audiences being addressed and unambiguous as well as credible in terms of the solutions and behavioral change patterns being sought, among other things.

Above all, they must reach out to all that are vulnerable and all whose participation and cooperation in mitigatory efforts are fundamental.

This means such messages must be transcendental of all potential social barriers to achieve favourable reception and efficacious impact.

Not only must they be sensitive to localised cultural sensibilities, they must also link local dynamics, vulnerabilities, and opportunities to broader global dynamics, especially in the event of a pandemic such as Covid-19, as these contexts are inextricably intertwined.

To ignore the socio-cultural and economic entanglements characteristic of contemporary society as well as the flow and flux of migratory populations is not only unwise but also outrightly foolhardy.

In fact, to do so would most assuredly undermine the effectiveness of behavior change communication during a pandemic.

By its very nature, a pandemic defies the idea of national boundaries and identity as it globalises vulnerabilities and opportunities for cooperation, at once.

By the same token, pandemics can also easily divide people in dangerous ways.

A potential threat in this regard are messages that drive people towards ‘us’ and ‘them’ relational dynamics as these can easily associate those seen as outsiders with the general threat posed by the pandemic itself.

Messages that seek to effect behaviour change thus, must not limit their audience reach through an identitarian inscription as this can potentially marginalise if not ostracise those excluded from the in-group being addressed.

In addition, such messages weaken solidarity between a diversity of people living in specific geo-political entities during an outbreak by virtue of their exclusionary temperament.

Although an appeal to group membership is in and of itself a potentially inspiring rallying point for behaviour change strategies, its reckless invocation can equally undermine solidarity across identity divisions if not threaten the welfare and lives of those marked as outsiders.

A cursory overview of messages circulating in the public domain in some influential media channels reveals a worrying tendency.

Behavior change messages inscribed in advertisements, print and broadcast news media, and statements by public officials draw on a range of tropes that invoke national identity.

In some cases, the usual adornments of this form of identity such as national colours, the national anthem, monikers that overtly imply the addressee in this specific identity schema are inscribed in these behaviour-change messages.

Since I am writing this article without insight from an audience study, I can only surmise on the rhetorical effect of such messages.

Nonetheless, at a discursive level, such messages do not only imply that the privileged group is threatened by an external agent which could be the virus itself or outsiders perceived as carriers, but also that the responsibility to contain the pandemic falls on only the citizens, the in-group.

Read in this way, the message can easily limit solidarity to members of the in-group and position them against the threat or those associated with the threat, the out-group.

In volatile societies with established and deep-seated antipathies against outsiders, hostility, if not violence towards the latter can easily ensue.

Also, since pandemics and even epidemics do not segregate based on any demographic categories, the cooperation of all at the global, regional, sub-regional, national and localised societal levels is imperative.

However, exclusionary messaging may potentially fail to mobilise the cooperation of the ostracised socio-cultural groups leaving loopholes for further vulnerabilities within society.

Another potentially weak link in building solidarity around required behaviour changes are the fractious identity agglomerations within a national context.

When notions such as citizenship, ethnicity and national identity inter alia, are invoked in a context where they are highly contested, they may not provide an effective rallying point for solidarity.

Inequalities, inequities and prejudices that are manifested in terms of ethnicity, gender, class and other demographic categories of difference can potentially impede the cultivation of solidarity and a sense of common purpose.

Of course, this must not be read to imply that national and sub-national identities are less important, as they may be the very basis for people’s sense of dignity, cohesion and solidarity.

As some have noted, behaviour change can indeed be motivated by such factors as serving ‘collective interests’, ‘cooperating within groups’, by performing behaviours that are aligned ‘with the expectation of social approval and modeled by in-group members’ (Van Bavel et al., 2020).

This is the dominant frame in mediated discourses about the Covid-19 pandemic across the world.

Such responses as closing borders, putting foreigners in quarantine and halting any processes of immigration among other things evince the resurgence of national and collective sensibilities.

In some countries such as the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom, this nationalist fervor has been manifested in the adulatory cheers given health workers and the singing of national anthems by those quarantined.

However, appealing to and rallying people in terms of exclusionary collective identities in the context of a rampaging pandemic can also undermine and frustrate opportunities for solidarity beyond the valorised identities invoked and evoked in messages aimed at inducing appropriate behavior change.

Some messages published by news media and promoted through advertising and a variety of social marketing strategies in Southern Africa show the limits of identitarian frames.

Announcing the first cases of the coronavirus in Namibia, the Namibian Sun of March the 16th 2020, led with the headline ‘Killer Invades Namibian House’.

In the same story, the Namibian State House spokesperson is quoted as having said ‘Every effort is being made to ensure that the virus does not spread in communities. The health of Namibians remains the first priority of President Hage Geingob.’

Referring to the two Romanian tourists who were the first to test positive in Namibia, the presidential spokesperson is also reported to have said: ‘The couple were immediately quarantined and contact tracing commenced” and (tracing) “will be intensified to ensure that all contacts are traced in order to protect Namibians and prevent community transmission.’

Reporting on the announcement of the third case by the Namibian Health minister Kalumbi Shangula, the government owned New Era of March the 20th 2020, noted that the minister had said “As a reminder all Namibians should adhere to the regulations announced during the declaration of the state of emergency on 15 March by the president.”

The Namibian of April the 6th 2020 also quoted the president as having said “all Namibians, who wish to participate must unite in faith, humble themselves and lift their voices to pray for the protection and welfare of our country” in his call for a national prayer.

In these examples, the virus itself is talked about using the trope of war, as something that has invaded the sacred sovereign space of a nation, Namibia.

This frame potentially invokes patriotic and nationalistic passions in response to the viral outbreak.

The virus, and by extension, carriers of the virus are an implied national threat.

Solidarity and cooperation are invoked as a national duty through statements such as “all Namibians should adhere to the regulations”.

The president also makes it clear that ‘the health of Namibians remains the first priority’.

Not only do these statements preclude cooperation and solidarity beyond the Namibian in-group, they also suggest the circumstances and vulnerabilities of non-Namibians are not a priority not only to the presidency but by extension to the general Namibian citizenry represented by the president.

The irony in these discursive practices is that without the cooperation and solidarity of non-Namibians resident in Namibia, the virus remains a constant threat to one and all within the country’s borders.

This shows the limits of identitarian discourses in behaviour change communication.

Zimbabwe’s NewsDay of March the 31st 2020 also reported that the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa had said ‘all citizens are required to stay at home.’

A columnist in the same issue declared that ‘government has a constitutional obligation to protect citizens in times of a disaster’.

In its editorial to an issue published on 1 April 2020, the NewsDay implored: ‘…fellow Zimbabweans, stay home, in your yard, it will save your life and those of your loved ones’.

The Zimbabwe Independent of April the 10th noted in its editorial: ‘the nation is locked in a colossal struggle against an invisible yet devastating enemy called Covid-19…’

It goes further to warn that ‘lest we forget, the coronavirus pandemic that we are facing poses an existential threat to our nation’ and, therefore, “this threat requires that all of us figuratively take up arms and go to war and fight the battle of our lives, our collective health and our well-being’.

Following the first seven cases of coronavirus infections in Zimbabwe, The Sunday Mail of March the 29th 2020 noted that the situation ‘makes it imperative for all Zimbabweans to play their part because recklessness may cost the lives of thousands of people.’

The editorial goes further to assert that as Zimbabweans “we can fight this pandemic together and reduce its impact on our nation if we work in unity’.

While these statements may be effective in marshalling national efforts aimed at containing the virus, they naively assume that Zimbabwe is host only to its nationals and that the challenges posed by the virus can only be solved through the collective efforts of these nationals.

As with the Namibian case, these frames alienate non-nationals and imply a high degree of vulnerability for them as the state priorities are placed on citizens.

This demonstrates indifference to, if not ignorance about the dynamics of globalisation and an antipathetic attitude towards the cosmopolitan make up of contemporary societies.

The citizens in whose name heroics are claimed remain threatened by the inactions of non-nationals whose solidarity in mitigatory efforts may be undermined by the divisive and exclusionary jingoistic rhetoric evident in most mediated messages about Covid-19, across southern Africa and the world at large.

Furthermore, in the case of fractious national identities such as in Zimbabwe, those whose iniquitous lived experiences suggest anything but inclusion in the national imaginary may not be easily persuaded by identity driven behavior change messages.

Ultimately, therefore, since pandemics have global implications, mitigatory efforts must of necessity be expressed in terms of the need for solidarity and cooperation among the human species, at all levels of social organisation across the world.

Phillip Santos is a senior lecturer in the Communication Department at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. This article expresses his personal views. This article was published in the Accent newsletter, a Media Alliance of Zimbabwe initiative

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