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Thursday, 7 May 2020

Tragic events shape people and nations. Communities and nations are changed by events. Covid-19 is changing our destiny, and the destiny of nations and communities forever, writes Anna Mokgokong.

Change is never easy.

It is usually met with varying degrees of defiance, mistrust, scepticism, anxiety, and fear.

Yet, in the final analysis, when communities and nations fail to explore change in favour of maintaining the status quo, they rarely ever solve the systemic problems that eventually prove to be their undoing.

So why is change so difficult amidst the Covid-19’s death and destruction? Is it just human nature that makes it difficult for one to move away from the familiar?

Maybe we can get answers from Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be? That is the question—whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them.”

In this soliloquy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, his audience pretends not to hear him because they are resisting change.

You may be wondering why I am summoning Shakespeare to tackle why we resist change. The truth is, in my quite moments during these trying times, the things I learnt a long time ago often flash through my mind.

The pandemic has significantly changed the contours of life and all of us, prodding us “to be or not to be.” We are in a quandary on whether to resist change or adapt to new ways of life.

The frustration and impatience of citizens created by extended lockdowns and painful economic realities cannot be underestimated. As unemployment bites and scientists race against time to find a vaccine and cure, life has become tougher by day.

Epidemiologists and economists analysis only serves to raise the temperatures. The latter points out that the longer the next four stages of the lock down, the worse will be the financial and economic position of our country and citizens.

Psychologists trying to understand the phenomenon of resisting change have given us useful concepts, such as "confirmation bias", in which we look for and accept evidence that supports our existing views and reject any that contradicts them.

There is also "motivated reasoning", interpreting new information in ways that are most sympathetic to our own world-view.

The “shrinks” also talk about the “backfire effect”. When confronted by an opinion, backed up by facts, which contradicts our own, we have a tendency to double down and retreat even more strongly into our own entrenched beliefs.

So, “Confirmation bias, “motivated reasoning and “backfire effect” and the Shakespearean effect of “to be or not to be” suggests that it is extremely difficult to get people let alone the world to flip that mental switch and shift a firmly held belief. Most of us are set in our ways.

We now all know that if you have Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, it began in your eyes, nose or mouth -- your facial mucous membranes.

By now, most of us have seen the appeals from agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: Wash your hands; don't touch your face; wear a mask. It's some of their simplest advice, yet for some people it's the most difficult to follow.

Habits such as face touching are pervasive. We've been building such habits nearly all our lives. A study by WHO found that we touch our face an average of 24 times an hour, and 44% of that touching involves contact with eyes, nose or mouth.

Like all our habits, touching our face has been reinforced over time: It begins with an itch or an irritation, which feels better, temporarily, when scratched or rubbed. That reaction then becomes a habit.

Habit change is very, very difficult. We are designed to build habits. When we try to break habits, we work upstream against our own evolutionary history.

I have heard of people who have died of lung cancer after many years of heavy smoking. They often said that life would be better if they could quit smoking, but they never managed to do that.

These days things are not being made better by impatience of those resisting cultural changes such as those demanding the liquor and cigarette stores to be opened to satisfy their withdrawal symptoms.

Calling for sacrifices and cultural changes when announcing the five coronavirus levels, President Ramaphosa said, “It is a time for caution. It is a time to act responsibly. It is a time for patience. There is no person who doesn’t want to return to work. There is no company that does not want to re-open. There is no student who does not want to return to their studies. Yet, we are all called upon, at some time in our lives, to make great sacrifices for our own future and for the future of others.”

The President should be commended for ordering one of strictest lockdowns and introducing five strict levels to prevent the runaway epidemic. His bold and sometimes unpopular steps and the R500-billion stimulus package will provide relief to individuals, families, small businesses and industries reeling from the pandemic.

Here the government has grasped the urgency of the economic moment, particularly as regards to households without income and businesses without revenues.

Our social disparity and Gini coefficient have been exposed glaringly during this time and calls for change.

These measures also means that going forward it won’t be business as usual. We all have to change our attitudes and business models and value chains so as to create jobs, fostering entrepreneurship, local manufacturing and production addressing food security.

Let the post Covid-19 strategy be built on moral values.

We have to bring an element of kindness, humanity, integrity. As the Bible says, “love each other like brothers and sisters. Give each other more honour than you want for yourselves,” let us embrace the spirit of live and let live.

Of course, there are raging ongoing debates with the business sector about a haste reopening of economic activities. Sadly the only teacher in this debate is experience.

We can only learn from those who have gone through this experience, what the best answer actually is. What we must also accept is that any company or business is run by healthy individuals and not sickly ones.

We have to adapt to new set of values and morals that guide our decision making such as integrity, family, fairness, personal responsibility, and kindness.

Covid-19 is teaching us not to get overly attached to our opinions but to sacrifice and adapt to life changes. Any attachment to old habits makes it seem as if we have something to lose when circumstances are being changed by the pandemic. Clinging to set views makes us inflexible and obstructive.

Let us realise that every calamity brings with it opportunities for cultural and habitual changes. Covid-19 is no different.

Now that we know that Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border, our response and conduct should attach primacy to cultural changes and habits.

Tragic events shape people and nations. Communities and nations are changed by events. Covid-19 is changing our destiny, and the destiny of nations and communities forever.

As our first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” let us be courageously united in our agony, sadness and pain and beat Covid-19 by outsmarting our old habits and forming different ones.

Again, as Shakespeare said “hell is empty and all the devils are here” let us unite as a nation and defeat Covid-19 and all its masters.

- Dr Anna Mokgokong is chairperson of the AfroCentric Group, South Africa’s largest health administration and medical risk management solutions provider, which owns health companies such as Medscheme.

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