The other day, I attended a scientific wedding in Uganda via Zoom. I could have attended physically but owing to the limited numbers allowed due to Covid restrictions, I had to attend virtually.
What a new and strange way to attend an African wedding, culminating from an exciting set of meaningful cultural celebrations? As my wife and I attended the wedding virtually, we quickly noticed that a number of people who were physically at the reception were not wearing masks or some carried on conversations with their masks around their chins.
I wondered why security at this event would allow people to walk in without masks and for those who wore their masks under their chins, why couldn’t their neighbours ask them to put them on right, for the safety of all.
However, I quickly “caught and arrested” my holier-than-thou attitude. I am also guilty of not wearing my mask or social distancing as required on a consistent basis. Then, I had an epiphany about our common humanness and what Covid-19 has cruelly imposed on all of us throughout these many months.
Covid-19 hasn’t just stolen our freedoms, our health and, for many, their loved ones; it has attacked the core of our humanness, a big part of what makes relationships meaningful. In Uganda, no tribe that I know of has the semblance of a mask - the Covid-type mask, as a cultural or decorative item.
Such masks are foreign to our Ugandan cultures. We may be asked to use them in a hospital setting but we are happy to leave them there and go back to our un-inhibited social lives. Covid-19 has hit our humanness hard as it has affected our need for social touch or contact.
For instance, in most Ugandan cultures, greeting is an “event” not the fly-by “hi” or “what’s up” moment. In Buganda, people greet by hugging several times from side to side, making mutual inquiries of how the other is doing and how everything important to them is faring.
Among the Banyankore, people hug, inspect each other to ensure what’s being exchanged matches the physical wellbeing.
Between hugs, you will hear, “kaije, buhooro, buhoorogye, agandi.” Even in quick encounters, “agandi” usually responded to with “nimarungi” typically goes with a few warm handshakes. But now, with Covid, warm hugs, the handshakes, kisses (for tribes where a greeting with a kiss matters) are deemed medically unsafe or socially frowned upon by many of us.
Furthermore, in Uganda, real social conversation is energetic, many times impassioned, loud, liberally mixed with humour, laughter and inviting of physical proximity. However, standard operating procedures against Covid-19 require that we don’t laugh out loud or talk loudly especially in close settings like restaurants or bars.
Covid has radically changed real social conversation. How long can one talk behind a mask without having to repeat oneself as some words get “eaten up” by a cloth attached closely to the face? Eyes become the only form of non-verbal communication, which is not always reliable.
According to a 2020 UNESCO report, one of the unintended consequences of the imposition of strict measures by African governments in the wake of the pandemic is the threat they pose to the very fabric of African societies, as we know them today. Socio-cultural norms and values that are at the center of African societies now face severe risk of disappearing into oblivion.
The ban on public gatherings, for instance, in response to the pandemic, has had a huge impact on family and community life, increased the possibility of fracturing relationships with long-term implications for cohesion and social harmony.
Paul R Ward, a professor of health sociology at Flinders University in Australia, looks into the future and believes the current and future impact of physical distancing and social isolation will affect social bonds, trust and solidarity. He asks, “Does the idea of physical distancing cement notions of other humans as carriers of risk and thus in need of distancing in the future?
Does the communicable nature of viruses and the focus on physical distancing lead to fear of the ‘other’? Will the post-Covid-19 world be more individualistic as a result of the fear of the ‘other’?”
For as long as it will require, it’s important to abide strictly by Covid restrictions in order to beat the disease but we cannot deny how this scourge has impacted our very humanness in major ways.
The author is a mental health consultant Toronto, Canada.