As South Africa prepares for the spike in the COVID 19 pandemic in the rest of the country outside the Western and Eastern Cape provinces, some of the key conversations – over and above the availability of ventilators and hospital beds – are about PPE.
Whether you’re a health care professional or just an ordinary person in the street, your personal protective equipment (PPE) is a critical weapon in your arsenal. For doctors and nurses that means having enough face masks, visors and gloves every day; for the rest of us that PPE is a face mask, perhaps a visor, thoroughly and regularly washed hands and a healthy physical distance from one another.
The pandemic won’t pass after the infections peak. Without a proven medical vaccine for treatment, we will be living with the threat of infection for the foreseeable future. Our new normal will be a low-touch economy; no hugging or hand shaking; we will have to be socially vaccinated by our disciplines and behaviours if we can’t be medically vaccinated.
We have to because we are now at a point where we have to balance the existential threat of the epidemiological contagion against the equally destructive effects of economic contagion. We have moved beyond the binary lives versus livelihood argument to the far more realistic, pragmatic and indeed sustainable construct of lives and livelihood. Indeed, we live in a country whose sad record of having the highest Gini coefficient will inevitably be even more entrenched as we finally emerge from the tightest restrictions of the Lockdown instituted on 27 March this year with an economy that was battling headwinds beforehand, possibly in a tailspin afterwards. It’s tough, but it does not have to be our destiny. Our biggest weapon to change our kids’ futures is our individual and voluntary choices about behaviour.
If we are to successfully negotiate this, as we must, we will need more than PPE – we will need Personal Protective Behaviours’ (PPB). It’s sobering to know that the one factor that will truly make the difference for all our health and economic well beings is the choice we each make about following COVID-limiting behaviour.
We have rules in place that underpin this behaviour: the government has now decreed in its state of disaster regulations that masks must be worn in public, that retailers and mall owners must supply hand sanitisers. Rules do work to manage behaviour, when they are applied and there are consequences for breaking them, but rules really work when they are amplified by norms and willing social collaboration. We saw that willingness during the successful implementation of the first 21 Days of South Africa’s Lockdown, reputably the toughest of its kind in the world.
The question is, how do we change norms? How do we encourage social collaboration? The answer is that we can do both. Nobel prize winning economist Richard Thaler, who has done memorable work on behavioural economics, argues that we assume that people are highly rational, ‘super-rational’ and unemotional. The reality, he says, is that those same people make many poor choices; from happiness to personal finance, because of routine biases that they are unaware of.
These biases can be managed through a system of what he calls libertarian paternalism; public and private organisations helping people to make better choices though policies that “nudge” them in the right direction. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron was a great believer in this, he set up a Behavioural Insights Team ten years ago. Since then that team has gone on to work with governments, business and civil service worldwide on issues as diverse as influencing tax paying behaviour, registering – and turning out – to vote, making better health choices and getting educated.
There’s no doubt that government communication units are able to do this kind of work, but specialist communication and opinion-influencing teams work far better and deeper, across society’s different demographics. Using a variety of data-driven insights and powerful yet subtle creative, behavioural psychology and communication techniques they can change habits and actions, countering the fake news and fake science.
These are rare skills, the same high-levels skills in fact that were employed so successfully by the self-serving ‘black-hat’ propagandists Bell Pottinger. This time though the end result would be an antidote to the toxin of the “white monopoly capital” trope and the melanoma of identity politics; the society-serving ‘white hat’ influencers rebuilding the democratic institutions and balances that the black hats were hell-bent on destroying in this desperate infodemic.
South Africa needs an urgent and transparent engagement between on the one hand, education, creative sector and business partners and on the other, government and health experts. Together they can build a powerful and globally-original behavioural influence operation to substantially change South African behaviours and habits in this pandemic, allowing higher degrees of safety and higher engagement in the economy. When they achieve this, they won’t just be sustainably flattening the curve, they’ll be creating a framework for the sustainable rebuilding of our fractured, and now ‘low-touch’ economy.
But it’s so much more than just battling the pandemic. We are faced with myriad social crises in this country, much of it the legacy of centuries of oppression and exclusion; colonial and apartheid. We are faced with the scourge of gender-based violence that seems to increase in its depravity and scope, not decrease. We have a national ambivalence about road safety that is deadly, a stupefying dissonance about alcohol abuse and an enduring unwillingness to pay for services, be it Eskom, SABC TV licences or just municipal rates. And, as the ‘BlackLivesMatter’ movement has shown, racism isn’t local; it’s pervasive, global and embedded in unjust systems. And perhaps, in us all who live in and by our actions accept the system as it stands. The same is true of sexism, corruption and toxicities in business and politics. We’re all activists now and the cause is to build a better world by freeing intelligence, information, opportunity and talent.
We need to change attitudes; we need to nudge people into doing the right thing. It starts with wearing a mask, keeping our distance as we go back to work – for those of us lucky to still have jobs on the other side of the pandemic – and washing our hands regularly with religious fervour. But we need to do such more, all the time. We need to disrupt education, get teachers teaching and learners learning skills that will actually guarantee them jobs. We need to create jobs, stimulate entrepreneurs and radically transform, reinvent, the economy – and we need to do it in the middle of the worst public health crisis the world has witnessed in living memory.
A Behavioural Insights Team for South Africa could help us get there, by nudging this country to focus on the end result and not be diverted down rabbit holes of fear and hate and the Machiavellian agendas that slink behind them. It could actually help us reboot the whole concept of ubuntu – ‘Rebuntu’ – as the true antidote to the metastasizing tumour that was Bell Pottinger’s infamous “WMC”. The best news of all is that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel when we create it either, because it already exists.Published 18 June 2020 on The Daily Maverick