Unity in action: From taxi ranks in Hillbrow to taverns in Umlazi

In partnership with the Solidarity Fund.

Wendy Tlou, the executive head of humanitarian response & behaviour change
pillars at the Solidarity Fund, says South Africans’ experiences with Covid-19 are an urgent call for us to take action.

On the day after Christmas, the Day of Goodwill when millions of South Africans were recovering from the centre-point of a festive season like no other, a woman with tears in her eyes walked up to a team of young Coronavirus awareness activists at the Durbanville taxi rank and thanked them.

She had lost a loved one to the virus, she told them. The pain of the passing sat heavy on her heart. The pandemic had robbed her of a loved one and a time to mourn their death properly. She knew of the anguish and devastation Coronavirus could wreak on a family and a community. 

She told the activation agents, part of the Solidarity Fund’s #UnityInAction awareness campaign to bring about behavioural change over the holiday season, that the work they were doing was vital. The agents have been part of a nationwide roadshow under the “Don’t be a Mampara” catchphrase to implore South Africans to follow three basic behaviours to stop the spread of Coronavirus: keep wearing a mask properly; keep social distance; keep avoiding large indoor gatherings.

“I appreciate what you are doing and how brave you are in going out to educate people in areas where people could be infected,” the woman said. 

“Even if you only touch a few people and convince them, that few will touch a few more. Then they will touch more and so lives will be saved.”

This is one of the many stories the agents have been reporting back to The Solidarity Fund from across South Africa. From taxi ranks in Hillbrow to shopping centres in New Brighton, from the taverns of Umlazi to a church in Mfuleni, the roadshow has taken the message of how behavioural changes can ensure the safety of each of us during this pandemic. They have spoken to locals to learn their needs, fears and get a sense of their understanding of the virus now we are deep into the second wave and back to level 3 lockdown.

Through listening and talking honestly, engaging with the public over their behaviours, educating and illustrating how we can co-exist, the agents have painted a picture of a country wracked by pandemic fatigue, that is uncertain and, yet, has much hope. That is why the campaign has tried to inject some light-hearted moments into the engagement. Our behaviours define our relationship with the virus. Don’t be a mampara, an ibhari, moemish, mabena or chop with regards to behaviours that put anyone at risk.

They have discovered different attitudes and needs across the nation. The agents and the campaign have been warmly welcomed. In particular, taxi marshals and drivers have been accommodating, perhaps because of an increased push by their associations for them to adhere to protocols to keep this vital industry operating. Teams at ranks were allowed to engage with drivers and marshals, converting them into advocates for behavioural change. In turn, the agents were encouraged to educate commuters and sanitise them.

Education helps overcome the uncertainty, but there remain many questions from South Africans. Where can they get tested? Where can they get masks as they are expensive? What can we do about the stigma placed on someone who has tested positive? Many are not aware of the long-term effects of the virus after recovery. What is the variant of the virus? How do I isolate when I have to work and make money? What do I do when someone says wearing a mask is a sign of weakness? How do I tell a person I can’t come to their secret New Year’s Eve party because I don’t feel safe? How do I tell others to wear their masks inside shopping centres and post offices? Why must I wear a mask over my nose?

And then there is the belief in some communities and groups of people that this is just a “flu and will go away”. The agents have adapted their strategies to the situation. One suburb they visited in the Eastern Cape wanted nothing to do with them and ignored them. So, they thought out a new way of engaging and got the message of behavioural change through to them. There is a suburb to the west of Joburg that has been identified as having a problematic and dangerous approach to the virus. A plan is being devised on how to enact change there.

Change is hard and coronavirus fatigue is a very real hurdle, particularly during the festive season. On Monday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to take the country back into a stricter lockdown. There have been 50 000 new infections since Christmas Eve. South Africans, as the president said, have let their guard down and we are now “paying the price”.

It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that price does not get higher. Knowledge is power for all during the pandemic. We have to learn to co-exist with this virus and each other in a new, safer way. That is why The Solidarity Fund has chosen a campaign with three simple and powerful behavioural changes: keep wearing a mask; keep social distancing; keep avoiding large indoor gatherings.  Our agents are our front-line fighters in this battle. As the bereaved woman in Durbanville told them, if they touch just a few, then those few will touch others, and those will educate others. Lives will be saved.