When it comes to COVID-19 prevention, there is a not very visible bottleneck: policy enforcement vs. culture/mindset enigma. This is a true story originating from Buliike, Luuka district, a few kilometres from Nakabugu, our other ancestral base.
Now, COVID-19 has contextualised and affirmed a number of things that we either didnt understand well or took for granted. We didnt know we could ably and efficiently work from home for long periods; today many of you have chosen to permanently work from home. We couldn’t imagine staying at home with loved ones and reconnect and ‘chill’ in the 50’s/60’s family style, and still find your job waiting for you. We didn’t know that we could conduct critical organisational processes online – processes that were done in grandiose hotels, face to face, for weeks if not months, are now accomplished on-line, and in much shorter time.
So, COVID-19, the monster, has saved businesses, individuals and governments billions of dollars directly and indirectly. Directly, via entities not spending money on activities that are now done a different way or not at all. Indirectly, by preventing toneless work and stress, the ensuing life style diseases’ and spend on medical services, wellness, etc. It’s been an apocalyptic few months, but eye opening. It’s akin to attaining efficacy by deception.
The presence of COVID19 also enabled the Effectiveness lab to affirm the obvious. For example, we know that policy enactment and enforcement, go hand in hand with ‘socialisation’ or ‘orientation’ of the policy details. If the latter is not done, policy uptake is likely to fail. Attribution for policy failure is heavily slanted towards the ‘lack of understanding’. Fix the understanding bit and bingo, policy uptake is a given.
Well not always!
There is a nuance to the above narrative that we have observed during the COVID-19 crisis. Specifically, the impact of culture or habit or mindset, on the successful implementation of policy.
The usually linear approach to policy implementation makes the assumption that as long as we ‘socialise’ a new policy, what follows is understanding, appreciation and subsequently policy uptake. Well, not always and organisations should understand this matter.
A week ago, we were at a funeral of a close relative in the small Buliike village, Luuka district. As per custom, we had to take time off work to ensure compliance with the social tradition of loved ones dying and having to be buried a day or two after they die – without consideration at all, of those of us that would have planned work weeks in advance.
The planning headaches aside, what we found at this funeral ceremony shocked us. It was a clear example of culture/social norms eating new policy for breakfast.
We couldn’t believe how much COVID19 prevention guidelines were disregarded. Moreover, not because they wanted to disobey authority, but they, we think, don’t consciously understand that they are doing wrong. The kindred at the funeral exhibited a very high level of ‘authentic’ and ‘innocent’ ignorance. It simply was business as usual at this peaceful village called Buliike.
We saw first hand the failure by our kindred to relate what is happening on the COVID-19 front, to the calls by government to follow prevention guidelines. Again, it’s not deliberate disregard of the guidelines. We don’t also think it’s ‘ignorance’, as many analysts would like to look at such blatant failure of policy uptake.
We opine that it’s evidence of the power of culture/social norms in determining what is a go or no go in society. Even the virulent and killer virus COVID-19 hasn’t changed a thing re.: place of culture/social norms in determining what is socially bonafide, good or bad. Even the authority of the State and it’s unrelenting education of the masses, hasn’t done the trick at Buliike.
People want and will relate as they have known for hundreds of years; they do not understand what social-distance [pronounced: “sosoolo disitensi”] is for, and why they need it. Attempts to follow government guidelines on COVID-19 prevention, were for a few minutes before falling back to what they know and is socially acceptable. On this matter, we are dealing with the brains of very young kids, that don’t retain stuff longer than a minute.
What do policy makers learn from this COVID-19 prevention guidelines blank slate?
◦ Enacting and rolling out policy won’t succeed without deep culture/social norms re-orienation
◦ A deliberate strategy for re-orientation has to be considered
◦ Yet, it’s also true that culture/social norms change isn’t a one month or year initiative. It takes generations to change social custom
◦ Policy development should recognise what is possible and impossible to change, plus acknowledge that certain things may take longer to change and require specific work-around
◦ Did we recognise that ‘sosoolo disitensingi’ was always going to be a tough one for our Buliike kindred?
No wonder the government has simply locked us in this tight and land locked geography called Uganda
And so far – it has worked!