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Opinionista

We need PPE against fake news, fake science, racism, sexism and toxic behaviour as we rebuild post-Covid

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

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 and nudge people into doing the right thing – and we need to do it in the middle of the worst public health crisis the world has witnessed in living memory.

As South Africa prepares for a possible spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, some of the most important conversations – over and above the availability of ventilators and hospital beds – are about personal protective equipment (PPE).

Whether you’re a healthcare professional or an ordinary person in the street, PPE is a critical weapon in your arsenal. For doctors and nurses, it means having enough face masks, visors and gloves every day. For the rest of us, it means wearing a face mask (or a visor), thoroughly and regularly washing our hands and keeping a healthy physical distance from one another.

The pandemic won’t pass after infections peak. Without a tried and tested 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 more hugging or handshaking. If we can’t be medically vaccinated, we will have to be socially vaccinated through discipline and behaviour.

We have no choice, because we are now at a point where we must balance the existential threat of epidemiological contagion with the equally destructive effects of economic contagion. We have moved beyond the binary ‘lives versus livelihood’ argument to the far more realistic, pragmatic and 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 by the time we finally emerge from lockdown.

The prognosis is anything but good, although this doesn’t necessarily have to be our destiny. The biggest weapon we have to secure our children’s future is our individual choice about behaviour.

If we are to successfully negotiate this crisis, 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 a difference to our collective physical and economic health and wellbeing, is the choice we each make about following Covid-limiting behaviour.

We already have rules in place that underpin this behaviour: the government has decreed in its state of disaster regulations that masks must be worn in public and that hand sanitisers must be provided at the entrance to shops and malls. 

When rules are applied, they generally do manage behaviour – especially if there are consequences for breaking them. But rules are pointless if people think they are free to ignore them.

The question is, how do we encourage social participation in the mass following of these rules? Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler, who has done memorable work on behavioural economics, argues that we assume 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 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 through 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 10 years ago. Since then, that team has gone on to work with governments and businesses 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 sort of work, but specialist communication and opinion-influencing teams work far better, and deeper, across society’s demographics. Using a variety of data-driven insights and powerful yet subtle creative, behavioural psychology and communication techniques can change habits and actions, and counter fake news and fake science. 

A behavioural insights team for South Africa could help get us there by nudging us to focus on the end result, and not be diverted down rabbit holes of fear and hate and subscribing to the Machiavellian agendas that slink behind them. 

These are rare skills – the same 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; with the society-serving “white hat” influencers restoring balance and rebuilding the democratic institutions that the ‘black hats’ were hellbent on destroying in this desperate infodemic.

South Africa needs an urgent and transparent engagement between education, the creative sector and business on the one hand, and government and health experts on the other. 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, “low-touch” economy.

But it’s so much more than just battling the pandemic. We are faced with myriad social crises in this country, many of them the legacy of centuries of oppression and exclusion through colonialism and apartheid. We are faced with the scourge of gender-based violence that seems only to increase in depravity and scope. 

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 Black Lives Matter movement has shown, racism isn’t local – it’s pervasive, global and embedded in unjust systems. 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 – and washing our hands regularly. We need to do this all the time. We need to disrupt education, get teachers teaching and learners learning skills that will guarantee them jobs. We need to create jobs, stimulate entrepreneurs and radically transform and 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 get us there by nudging us to focus on the end result, and not be diverted down rabbit holes of fear and hate and subscribing to the Machiavellian agendas that slink behind them. 

It could help us reboot the concept of ubuntu – “rebuntu” – as an antidote to the metastasising tumours caused by the likes of Bell Pottinger. The best news of all is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we create it either, because it already exists. DM

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