Covid-19 SA: Public Awareness Levels Require Concentrated, Sustained, Massive Boost

By Clive W. Kronenberg

FOLLOWING quite literally the completion of this submission, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the South African nation on Sunday 15/03/20, a topic this discussion concludes on).

Initiated from around 05March, 2020, when things started heating up around the world, our three member team set out to explore possible distinctive trends in how Covid-19 broadly is perceived in South Africa.

Newspaper, TV, radio, social media and general insights from the public (from high standing academics to ordinary fellow South Africans) all proved useful and quite insightful. Though not scientific in the strict sense of the word, this ‘quick and soft’, cultural/communicative empirical synopsis suggests certain distinguishing, and at times, deeply troubling trends.

Reference to any medical and/or scientific data here is based on the findings, reports, prescriptions and general pronouncements of the World Health Organisation, their confirmed associates and representatives, and accredited scholars operating in these fields. It was prudent to do so since our team primarily operates in the domains of the social and human sciences.

Essentially, what are the levels of awareness of:(1) the virus itself, and (2) what needs to and must be done to limit or contain possible contagion? In other words, have the South African public (broadly defined) appropriately understood and reacted to the presence of Covid-19 on their shores?


A factor that immediately stands out like a morass of oleaginous, colourless plastic bags drifting along South Africa’s once majestic Olifant’s River, is the issue of general unawareness and misperception, amongst elite governmental officials, well-known media practitioners, established academics, and accordingly, the broader, adult public, who by and large also are casualties of apartheid gutter education. This combination alone speaks volumes and cannot be disregarded in any prospective national awareness program that hopefully will follow as soon as possible.

Quite interestingly, South Africa’s Dr Rousseau (now based at Auckland University of Technology and employing algorithms in her studies) indicates that, as news of the now pandemic initially entered into the public space, feelings of ‘happiness’ increased, i.e., amongst social media users of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. This, the scholar attributes to the way these rugby-loving countries generally or traditionally would react to bad news, namely, not to be negative or overreact in the face of drawbacks and disappointment. She also sees such, albeit preliminary responses as a form of ‘comic relief’, deemed crucial for getting ‘through tough times’ (SABC Radio 14/03/20).

But as news spread of fellow citizens’ enduring isolation in Wuhan, South Africa’s first confirmed case, Italy’s calamitous national status, and many, many more quite disturbing events around the globe, ‘feelings of happiness’ notably subsided and soon gave way to more sober reflection.

Here we readily detect lingering feelings of: ‘don’t worry so much’; ‘do not panic’; ‘we’ll get through this’; ‘this is but another plague humankind somehow will conquer, as it did many times before’.

Coming from more critical intellectual circles, the reality of existing, often also deadly diseases, excessive levels of poverty, large-scale underdevelopment, sweeping, growing unemployment, the systematic erosion of the environment, and more, often was mooted as being of comparable importance.

The frenzy around Covid-19 thus basically ‘diverts attention from such equally critical human concerns’. On the whole, public awareness of Covid-19’s presence in South Africa, and status as a potentially deadly virus, was and remains indisputable and sweeping, as can reasonably be expected.

Further, there seems to be a commitment to things like washing hands with soap and water (the 20 second stipulation hardly features though), use of sanitisers, and shielded coughing and sneezing.

The enormous efforts of the W.H.O. and the SA Government seem to have paid dividends. However, such pledges are expressed primarily in written and spoken words (newspaper letters, opinion pieces, social media postings, and interactive talks on television and radio). Accordingly, this submission cannot vouch for individuals actually engaging in such precautionary practices.

The above notwithstanding, there appears to be a dire lack of mindfulness of, and hence responsibility to, restraining possible contagion through other, equally if not more important non-personal/non-private means. In other words preventative action and pre-emptive measures in the broader, social domain are not high on the public discourse agenda. This, as indicated by a high-standing professor of education (University of Pretoria) could be ascribed to a general ‘apathy’, which emanates from a certain ‘inertia’ amongst governmental officials [a view expressed prior to Pres. Ramaphosa’s national address]. In effect, SABC TV 2 news (20h:00 14/03/20) streamed images of a high profile politician meeting up with and enthusiastically shaking hands with several township dwellers, thereby considerably diminishing the importance of evading or minimising direct, physical human contact.

Added to this, an Independent Media editorial (13 March 2020) seemingly stirs up public sensation around the forthcoming Super Rugby tournament, without making any mention of Covid-19 or the fact that countless major sporting matches and events across the world had already either been postponed or cancelled. The piece concludes: ‘we wish all four of our South African teams everything of the best. Enjoy the rugby’. Perhaps as an act of equipoise, the same editorial page carries a commentary piece ‘All sport must be stopped’, by the well-known columnist Mark Keohane, who emphatically states: ‘cancel all sports across the globe. According to medical experts, it is the only way to help contain the virus, because it limits massive public gatherings. . . . This is what global sporting bosses have to accept. Large gatherings are a feasting ground for the spread of the virus’. What more needs to be said? Such conflicting writings could potentially bring enormous penalties for ordinary citizens and readers, chief of which is the dispersion of confusion.

Should those able to do so go and attend those matches? Of course, as the editor of the Cape Times clearly notes: ‘enjoy the rugby’. But maybe he simply forgot to add from the comfort of your TV rooms? We don’t know. Confusion. On the other hand, Mark is saying something totally different. More Confusion perhaps, and with that, the prospect of rugby fans possibly becoming infected with Covid-19.

Although no formal or governmental pronouncement may have been made at that point in time (concerning sporting matches) what had been and was transpiring across the globe should have been abundantly clear, especially and particularly to any newspaper editor, anywhere in the world.

Overall, it appears that when it comes to PREVENTING or CONTAINING CONTAGION, i.e. in and across the social domain, as strongly and consistently recommended by the W.H.O., the world’s most advanced health and medical sciences organisation, South Africa is treading on very dangerous grounds.

When the issue of large-scale public unawareness (of adequate, all-encompassing preventative measures) was raised with a respected educational pedagogue, poet and essayist, he had no hesitation responding: ‘stop being so alarmist, stop engaging with misinformation; I am really worried about your maudlin fixation with this thing. Don’t you believe in God? Lighten up’. (‘Maudlin fixation’ basically means an obsession with things ‘mushy’, ‘syrupy’, ‘over-sentimental’, ‘overemotional’, ‘weepy’).

Would similar sentiments be directed at President Ramaphosa, given the fact that he has emphasised the necessity of launching a massive, national educational crusade, precisely to deepen public awareness around this very same issue? (Congrats & Many Thanks Pres!)

Then, a well-known labour activist, also a university academic, suggests the virus may purposely have been dispersed by profit-hungry capitalists, a theory somewhat controverted by the happenings in uppermost, elite free market circles.

Such thinkers ostensibly are unaware of the many, quite crucial lessons we can learn from China and Italy, or the extraordinary economic crash that enveloped global markets in recent days, and with that, the liquidation, literally overnight, of tens of trillions of US dollars. But to be fair, reports have surfaced of medical costs broaching the $1000 mark in certain parts of the capitalist world, thereby excluding the mass of the population there from knowing their Covid-19 status.

On the very day that the W.H.O. pronounced the virus a Pandemic, a quite familiar radio talk show host chose to open discussion on whether or not the Ebola epidemic in Africa was really under control. Even though achievements and successes in this regard were clear and corroborated, he persisted in driving this line of discussion, disregarding the need amongst listeners (callers) to engage with the real and indisputable topic of the times. This could mean that, even high-profile reporters may not understand the nature of the virus, and its dire implications?

The opportunity to turn public discourse more ideally into an informative process, one that should form part of a broader, concentrated, national preventative crusade, was thus wasted completely.

On the morning of Friday 13 March 2020 the host of SABC early morning radio notably opened the lines to the public, for them to have their say on Covid-19. And did the calls flow in! But a clear and present danger soon emerged, one also previously detected, time and again: most of the callers expressed their personal views on Covid-19, with the presenter, mostly, not always, offering thanks for their contribution and participation and wishing them well on the (uncertain) road ahead. The fact that some callers made some very peculiar, often unfounded claims, did not entice this host to swiftly and decisively set the record straight on what, after all, is a national broadcaster, often the one and only source of news for many of South Africa’s isolated, far-flung rural communities.

Here, likewise, the impression is that this host may not have been aware of some of the most pertinent social aspects, features and implications, of Covid-19, data that can readily and freely be accessed from the W.H.O.’s very elaborate and informative online platform.

A question that instantly arises here is this: Why did Italy, where relevant info is reasonably well-understood by equally reasonably well-educated citizens, still witness the systematic unfolding of a high-level national emergency situation there? If South Africa is found faltering and wanting in its Awareness Mission, then what are the possible consequences that almost assuredly will follow from this? Whereas broad, public mindfulness of Covid-19’s potentially lethal status is not in dispute, high levels of confusion, misunderstanding and a general lack of basic deduction, remain cause for very serious concern.

Insofar as China managed to curb the dramatic spread of Covid-19, thereby diminishing new infections from around 80/day to just under 10/day (figures may have changed since writing this piece), could so easily create the impression that soon all will be well, in South Africa that is. But what we now see happening in first world countries Italy, England, Canada and the US, paints quite a different, contradictory and deeply tormenting scene.

In light of the above, President Ramaphosa’s historic address to the South African nation on the evening of Sunday 15 March, 2020, unequivocally was pertinent and more than brilliant; a truly remarkable and unparalleled moment for all South Africans, in most trying of times.

Arguably the one and only, ever so slightly light-hearted moment was when His Excellency demonstrated how South Africans in future would greet one another. President Ramaphosa engraved an impression on the consciousness of the nation no one will and should ever neglect or disregard. A small, yet potentially life-saving gesture. But in doing so, he merely set in motion what assuredly now must follow: A SPECIALIZED, SYSTEMATIC INSTRUCTIVE NATIONAL CAMPAIGNGEARED AT RESTRAINING CONTAGION ACROSS THE BROAD, SOCIAL DOMAIN (where not purely citizens at large, but, where needed, news editors, reporters and media practitioners must ALL step up to the occasion and in most professional of ways.)

The common practice now in South Africa of asking the public to air their views on a complex medical matter, must be approached very carefully, particularly by those who don’t seem to have adequate knowledge on the subject themselves. The time now is for CLEAR and DEFINITE INSTRUCTIONS TO BE TRANSMITTED WIDE AND FAR.

Time for endless, sweeping debate and discussions should hardly be our priority. Public feedback, of course, is strongly encouraged, for that will show officialdom where improvement is required.

The Chinese indicate that they could only really get a grip on this plague by involving all citizens, all communities, all towns, all cities, all national territories, including all fields of the academia and working hand in hand every step of the road with health and medical practitioners and professionals leading the way.

That South Africa’s President appeared somewhat late for his address can readily be excused, since as Minister Jackson Mthembu indicated, the president was engaged in consultation and deliberation with expert parties, a process that went beyond stipulated time. In the present context this shows true and real insight, and thus, faithfulness to the well-being of the South African nation.

We conclude by sending warm greetings to our fellow brothers and sisters who were previously holed up in Wuhan for weeks and months before being quarantined at The Ranch Hotel and have all tested negative for #COVID19 after being under strict observations. They left the Ranch Hotel to be reunited with their families.

We send warm greetings of courage, strength, compassion, and solidarity to all other South Africans and global citizens currently in quarantine. And we give praise and thanks to the W.H.O. and our own distinguished health and medical sciences fraternity, not forgetting our military, aviation, and all other associated parties, for their commitment in times of great distress. Eendragt maakt Maght!! All for One and One for All!! A’luta Continua!! Hasta la Victoria, Siempre!! 

 Clive W. Kronenberg (Ph.D.) (Nationally-Accredited Research Scholar; Lead-Coordinator: South-South Educational Research & Knowledge Interchange Initiative; Documentary Film Producer)

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