Author: Phefumula Nyoni– An Anthropologist and Sociologist currently serving as an academic and Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa-with an interest the areas of entrepreneurship, culture and medicine, education transformation as well as human rights and policy.
Fieldsite: South Africa
An overview of the situation in South Africa
The South African context has historically been peculiar when it comes to societal experiences of incidences. This peculiarity can best be understood through the apartheid legacy that left class divisions deeply entrenched in society. Looking into the issue of online platforms the scale is subsequently tilted in favour of what one can consider a privileged middle class. This implies that individuals and groups with limited access to factual information often find themselves exposed to rumourmongering and fake news. This occurs even if they can access smartphones and subsequently online sources of information.
In this piece, to make my arguments, I reflect on my encounters with individuals and groups positioned in different spaces of society amid the hysteria that gripped the society when the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa. The hysteria manifested itself in many ways such as online jokes, denials that the COVID-19 virus exists or can affect Africans, diverse interpretations of preventive measures against infections especially through the highly publicised social distancing practice and mask-wearing. All these aspects seem to have been strongly influenced by the forms of sharing of online sources of information in different spaces. Whilst it is beyond doubt that there are other sources of COVID-19 information that individuals and groups across the class divide have relied on, online sources have remained key to the extent that even the government had to implement legislation aimed at regulating this platform and punishing offenders, particularly peddlers of fake news, or those spreading misleading and false information.
From a joke affair to a panic storm – Events leading to the pandemic storm in South Africa
The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in South African Society started with an alarmingly high number of myths and a great deal of misinformation as a broad spectrum of jokes and statements of defiance spread from one online platform to the next. I was among those persons who towards the end of January 2020 when news that the pandemic was spreading like wildfire across Asia and Europe started spending extended time on the internet searching for information. Online information sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp together with online newspapers became my immediate target sites. The admission by the World Health Organisation that dealing with the pandemic is a ‘learn as you go’ did not help matters in terms of accessing factual information especially considering that vulnerable persons particularly those residing in locations and townships as well as in the informal settlements became targets of the rumour mongering.
The fact that South Africa and other African countries seemed to be hit last by the COVID-19 pandemic equally saw a slow increase in the circulation of information. My observations in the various spaces that included the work context, home, public spaces and avenues of public transport also became reflectors of how information at the inception of the virus pointed to some level of complacency across diverse societal spaces.
Online information and mask-wearing practices
In the week before March 26, 2020, announcement of the lockdown in South Africa, I witnessed several incidents that pointed to some form of sluggish response by individuals and communities in South Africa. In one of the incidents, as I was on my way into the city (Johannesburg) I was signalled to take the front seat of a public taxi but because of being conscious to the fact that I was to receive money from other commuters throughout the journey, I declined the offer. Such a refusal is something that would have been strange in the pre-pandemic era. Instead, I entered the back section of the quantum taxi and sat on the back seat. All this reaction was because through browsing online news I had encountered information to the effect that the Covid-19 virus could be transmitted through cash exchanges. Normally when one is paying the taxi fare the passengers collate it and it exchanges a couple of hands before it reaches the front seat passenger who is tasked with counting it and balancing it before handing it over to the driver who may do a further verification to ensure that the fare is a correct amount. If some change is required by the commuter, money that could have exchanged further hands does the reverse till it reaches the owner.
Because of my level of sensitivity to the risks that the money exchange practice poses on the spread of the Covid-19 virus, my quick observations showed that only two young ladies who appeared to be of school-going age had masks and gloves on. A closer look at their masks showed that although the masks seemed to be reusable, not disposable surgical masks, their masks looked dirty as they had possibly been used multiple times without being washed. This left me wondering if these two innocent-looking souls were not more exposed to the deadly virus with the masks than if they had not put them. Reflecting on the money exchange practice common in the public taxis I was left impressed by the level of preparedness by these ladies. As I was still digesting this issue, some interesting conversation erupted from the back seat with passengers debating on the rationale behind wearing the masks. Some passengers were heard condemning this practice and declaring that such persons could usually be the first causalities of the Coronavirus. I withheld my thoughts as I realised that those who held thoughts admiring the safety measures taken by the ladies were outnumbered by the larger group that condemned the practice as alien and sensational. This incident was just one of the many incidents that I had to observe during my journeys with taxis around Johannesburg and Pretoria. From an Anthropological point of view, the conversation in the taxi was a replica of the contradictory nature of interpretations that individuals within the broader society held on the protective nature of the masks. In this regard, online news platforms were abuzz with diverse sentiments with some including government officials sometimes encouraging that the scarce masks be worn by those infected to avert spreading the virus so that the masks are reserved to the frontline medical professionals in direct contact with patients, some of who might be infected.
It seems information on the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading as quickly as the pandemic itself. The announcement of the March 26th 2020 national lockdown by President Ramaphosa which took place on the 23rd of March 2020 became a turning point in the sensitisation of South Africans on the expected responses to the pandemic. It was now clear that previous information circulating on social media depicting Africa or at least Africans as immune to the virus and the virus rather being a Chinese or European problem were not only false but misleading as well. The address by the president with the National Department of Health scaling up awareness measures via online platforms including setting up a 24 hour Corona account on the Whatsapp platform set the tone for a new response. Equally, the pre-lockdown period saw the South African government set up a website (coronavirus.dtafree.co) where one can receive up to date information without a need for data or airtime to access it.
Whilst on the one hand announcing the lockdown triggered an unprecedented level of panic buying which saw individuals literally emptying shelves across many retail shops and somehow disrupting the supply chain, on the positive note the announcement created the much-needed consciousness. For instance, one of the incidences which took place on the eve of the lockdown pointed to a rise in consciousness around Covid-19. In this case, I hired a Bolt taxi from one of the nearest shopping centres and got attracted by the nature of the conversation I had with the driver. The first issue after we exchanged greetings was his anxiety on what the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown would mean for persons like him whose business thrived from ferrying persons. He emphasised that despite the first Covid 19 case being confirmed in South Africa on the 5th of March 2020 life had remained normal and he had not taken the pandemic seriously. He revealed that all that had changed and to demonstrate that he took his phone and shared with me some of the messages about the pandemic that he had received through various online media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. In addition to the Bolt driver expressing his fears of contracting the deadly virus and losing his only source of income we also shared some of the challenges with the information shared through social media sources and he concurred that indeed it was important for the government to take decisive action against abusers of the platforms as the pandemic was not child’s play. Important is the fact that such has been the story highlighting experiences of different persons under the Covid-19 pandemic especially considering the nature of information shared which in many instances has highlighted new realities in which people find themselves.
Online platforms and social distancing
Whilst in some spaces, a few days before the lockdown I encountered a worrying trend of individuals seemingly not taking calls for social distancing and protection against infections seriously this was not so in some spaces such as universities which include the University of Johannesburg which took active measures to spread the information and to protect the university community. Information was shared through emails whilst a designated link was also put up. Universities and other government institutions broadly seemed to have managed to tap on online platforms to spread the relevant information to their workforce and the relevant stakeholders prompting urgent responses in terms of precautionary measures. In this regard, the University of Johannesburg through various online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin as early as the 19th of March 2020 released an information circular that outlined various social distancing and preventive measures which followed the earlier introduced delinking of biometric scanners at all its entrances and issuing hand sanitizers at its key points. These later measures included the suspension of contact classes, graduation ceremonies, intercampus bus services, international travels among other measures and restrictions implemented (UJ COVID-19 update 2). Importantly, however, was how the availability of authentic information created the much-needed levels of consciousness within both the university’s academic and non-academic community. So effective where the online sources in spreading factual information such that levels of consciousness around the pandemic shot up to such that whenever one head a cough in the corridors they would turn their heads in disapproval. Staff not feeling well especially with flu-like symptoms were encouraged to remain home. So high were the levels of consciousness such that a few days before the lockdown as the institution was preparing to close, contact details of individuals were captured in each office visited for services to facilitate tracing in case of any COVID-19 case detection. This high level of consciousness and urgency in response manifest at the University of Johannesburg and other Universities was equally witnessed across many South African public spaces such as the police stations and transport hubs such as the Gautrain.
Online platforms under lockdown
The start of the national lockdown at midnight on the 26th of March 2020 meant a restriction on people’s movements and a freeze of most of the country’s services except for essential services. Whilst the lockdown was initially meant to end on the 30th of April 2020 its extension for another two weeks up to the end of the month has meant that online sources will remain a main source of information. Since the lockdown, I have relied extensively on various online platforms such as Facebook where I am part of several groups. I have observed a significant increase in the postage of information during the lockdown. Most of the WhatsApp and Facebook groups have however seen individuals sharing ‘memes’ and false information which has been a source of frustration and irritation which subsequently forced me to exit the groups. It is crucial to equally note that Facebook posts have also assisted during lockdown especially concerning the information on the distribution of food parcels which residents have reportedly indicated has assisted them significantly. These platforms have however equally posed challenges as fake news has fuelled unnecessary tensions to the extent that in some instances the misinformation has led to clashes between residents and distributors of food parcels or law enforcement agents.
Official WhatsApp groups including official government platforms have however remained main sources of information as important factual updates have been shared. An assessment of many posts in various platforms has however revealed a sense of anxiety combined with some degree of fears that have gripped society especially concerning what the future holds. This article is written following the president’s announcement of a R500 Billion stimulus package which has been well received by many in society. Responses have been shared online and social media platforms and these platforms are set to continue to be important sources of information as the nation further awaits another address by the president on COVID-19 on the 23rd of April 2020.
A final word
It is clear that access to online information has been effective especially following the efforts by the South African government and other public institutions that have tapped on it in ensuring the effectiveness of the online sources of information. It equally remains clear that despite the challenges of misinformation that characterise online sources of information, they remain an important platform which if tapped properly can go a long way in fighting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is equally clear that the pandemic has brought inevitable changes within the South African society with online sources possibly taking centre stage in communication. In the absence of physical contact, online information platforms have become important sources of sharing information ranging from news updates, preventive measures, infections, recoveries, preventive measures, and other survival strategies.
Pictorial Reflections: (Pictures courtesy of the citizen (citizen.co.za) and www.dispactchlive.co.za)