“Social distance” the black swan to African culture in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic

By William Dekker

Never in the history of mankind has the world been so united in conveying one simple message: “STAY AT HOME!” So unified is the messaging framework, so loud are the channels and so diverse are the tactics that it would make for a classic postgrad dissertation, a glorious white paper, or even a timeless reference journal on behaviour change communication. After this pandemic, it will not be a surprise to see the best of communication experts gather at international conferences to discuss ‘Crisis & Behaviour Change Communication Lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Remarkably so, the mass media, complemented by the ubiquity of digital technologies, has been consistent in communicating, with the intention of increasing the public’s adherence to the safety and preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19. This has included promoting adaptive responses to foster positive health attitudes and behaviour such as hand hygiene, usage of masks and keeping social distance.

However, one gets to wonder why, despite the consistency in messaging, the multiplicity of channels and the resultant amplification of these messages, it is still hard to achieve ‘social distancing’ among populations as a preventive measure against COVID-19.

Conlon (2017) maintains that for social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) to achieve impact, the campaigns should be long and intense. This long-term achievement of change in behaviour is backed by Prochaska’s transtheoretical model which posits that the target population has to evolve through the stages of being unaware of the issue at hand, to become aware, concerned and knowledgeable about it. It is only after they are knowledgeable that they will be motivated to change. Hence, individuals start trying to change behaviour that progressively transits to sustained behaviour change. However, in the current case of coronavirus disease, individuals are being asked to instantly change their behaviour – an uphill task that goes against the theoretical models of behaviour change.

More complex is the change in question – the practice of keeping social distance. Human beings are intrinsically social beings. Our social nature is an adaptive concept useful for both our survival and reproduction – a juxtapose to why it can be a cause for our extinction in the case of COVID-19. We are dependent on complex social cooperation to survive and thrive. Social distancing, therefore, means refraining from doing what is inherently human, which is to find solace in the company of others.

Social distancing – presented as intentionally avoiding physical interaction with other humans during our daily routine- has become hard to achieve due to what could be explained by the millions of years of behavioural and cultural evolution.

I, for example, come from a background where greetings are not only important but also sacred. A greeting, in its full form of physical contact, whether presented as a handshake or a warm-friendly hug, leads beyond the realm of phatic communion. Such greetings give meaning to customary behaviour: they create ties of union and serve as means to social cohesion. Hence, for a community to abstain from such customary actions in the face of this pandemic, implies that the magic function of such greetings is temporarily lifted and therefore it is a change that is achieved through pains.

The practice of social distancing has also been extended to sacred rites such as burial of loved ones. The government of Kenya, for example, has instructed that a burial ceremony should not exceed 15 participants – preferably close family members, and that the rite be carried out within 48 hours of a person’s demise. This is by far, the most extreme instruction and disruption of culture due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It might be the hardest to accept since it contravenes the concept of bereavement and mourning among African families. In such families, a deceased member deserves a decent burial, which is often supported by several religious and customary rites extending over days and weeks. Moreover, the idea of family in such cultures, especially in a burial ceremony, is broad, and goes beyond the nuclear household. The ceremony has to be populated by everyone who shares any form of ancestry with the deceased.  The idea of social distancing is thus a foreign concept that goes against cultural practices that these communities have embodied for centuries.

Kelly MP and Doohan (2012) argue that behaviour takes place in social environments and efforts to change it must, therefore, take account of the social context as well as the political and economic forces which act directly on people’s health regardless of any individual choices that they may make about their own conduct. To support this analogy, Glasgow S, Schrecker (2015) contends that it is important to understand the conditions preceding behaviour psychologically and sociologically and to combine psychological ideas about the automatic and reflective systems with sociological ideas about social practice. So, did we take time to consider the underlying justifications for such customary practices before banning them in the name of enforcing ‘social distance’? Wait a minute, did we even have the time for that?

We can conveniently argue that social and behaviour change communication employs a systematic process beginning with formative research and behaviour analysis, followed by communication planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time for a systematic process was not there! The situation evolved rapidly, leaving no space for formative research or careful behaviour analysis. We just went straight into the messaging! Without blinking an eye, we kept on hammering the message “keep distance” and that is when the rain started beating us – haphazardly jumping into messaging with little regard to the underlying socio-cultural dynamics of our target groups.

Perhaps what we need to ask ourselves now is “what happens after all this is over”? Referencing studies from the outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 flu, Ebola and other infectious diseases since the early 2000s, what will be the psychological toll of social distancing resulting from this pandemic? How huge will be the cultural disruption, and how well are we prepared to reconstruct it?


PS: Black swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many black swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected

William Dekker is a Strategic Communication specialist. Email-dekker.william@outlook.com


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