Those who have not heard about Covid-19, please raise your hands. No one because everybody is aware about Covid-19 and how it is taking away productive lives. Those who believe that Covid-19 is witchcraft, raise your hands? One, two. The majority know that Covid-19 has nothing to do with witchcraft and cannot be cured by magic. How many know the difference between magic and herbs? No spoon-feeding.
Those who believe Covid-19 is punishment from God for earth’s inhabitants’ transgressions, raise your hands. One, two, three and four. The majority know that both the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible, two major religious texts that govern our lives today, clearly indicate God will only punish wrongdoers in the afterlife. So, covid-19 has nothing to do with God.
How many here have not seen people or heard about people dying in the morning but being buried the same day with only close family and heavily suited hired undertakers burying the dead? How many here have ever seen excavators digging mass graves in Malawi for daily hurried burials?
It is mind boggling; isn’t it? We inched towards a catastrophe worse than HIV and Aids. Yes we are. We all know the truth about Covid-19 and how it spreads. We know the preventative measures. Yet, every day we hear stories of people banding together to protest against government preventative measures. Yet every night, people are defying government guidelines by switching off the music and continuing to drink all night as usual in pubs.
Yet, pub owners and sex workers, the only acknowledged professional workers who are not taxed by the ever-alert MRA, are insisting on opening their centres of trade until the small hours of the day. Yet, young people are mingling freely and masklessly in shebeens to drink and watch foreign soccer matches. Yet, market vendors are competing in shouting and saliva-spitting contests in markets.
What is preventing us from changing our social behaviour in the wake of such harrowing evidence that Covid-19 kills? Well, academic studies indicate that human social behaviour changes extremely slowly. Change means facing and accepting new realities and adapting one’s behaviour accordingly. But the human mind always protests abrupt change to routine behaviours. It wants to continue with the old behaviours because those are considered normal. The anti-lockdown protests we have witnessed in the US, France, Germany, South Africa, and Malawi are a manifestation of the human mind protesting against abrupt routine behaviour change.
So, how can Malawi’s Covid-19 preventive measures be effectively implemented and followed? Some studies have indicated that compensating people (monetarily) for what they will lose for changing from old to new behaviours works. Some governments, like Britain, have tried to keep people home and give them food, some money and other incentives. The approach has worked temporarily. Some governments, like China and North Korea, have deployed the police and soldiers to enforce lockdowns. Yet other countries, such as Malawi, have gone the hybrid way—using the law and police to fine or arrest and detain offenders.
In short, emergency behaviour change guidelines, such as those used during pandemics and natural disasters, are not easy to implement. Some behaviour change experts have suggested a carrot and stick approach. This approach might work in Malawi. Chiefs, politicians and religious leaders no longer wield power over the people. Even parents do not matter much in democratic Malawi. Media? Forget.
President Chakwera says, and we believe him, that Malawi’s modern police is a service and not a force. Well, without some form of force, legal or militaristic, and some form of incentive or reward for good behaviour, the social behaviour change we seek through the preventive measures will not work speedily enough to arrest the covid-19 pandemic.
So sayeth Professor Dr Joyce Befu, MEGA-1: Give people some incentive, some compensation, to accept Covid-19 preventive measures (carrot) and then punish forcefully those that transgress the regulations (stick).