Sense-making: Why it matters in mitigating Covid-19


Covid-19 has not spared nations, their economies, politics, wealth, systems and people. It is such an invisible yet powerful foe. It has affected decision-making in profound ways as governments around the world, scientists, politicians, legislators, researchers and others leading the fight against the pandemic stumble from one possibility to the next. 

Most of the steps taken by countries to break its transmission are laudable, but also have negative side-effects, one being the economic cost that harms families, businesses, and the national fiscus. On the political front, the South Africa’s government has been both praised and criticised for how it is managing the spread of the virus. This will continue as the country grapples with the painful side-effects of some of the regulations.

The reality is that the virus cannot be eradicated immediately. Scientists in the field of infectious diseases have predicted that the virus will be among us for a long time. It is at this point that sense-making becomes even more important, so that together we can increase the chances of success as far as the interventions are concerned. This making sense of, or giving meaning to our new reality is critical, given the knowns and unknowns that can make our understanding of the world unintelligible. 

Sense-making enables leaders to have a better grasp of what is going on, thus facilitating other leadership activities such as visioning and inventing. Sense-making can move society into a season of creativity and innovation, of being open to new insights and ideas. 

So then, where do we start with this process of sense-making in uncertain times? 

First, it begins by recognising the reality that the virus is our midst and is deadly. This means it is our collective responsibility to adhere to all preventative strategies to slow its spread. This slowing will also give the public health system time to put in place measures to cope with the increasing numbers of infections. Ongoing public education about the pandemic, the virus and mitigation strategies through the media and government communication agencies is essential to ensure every person stays informed. 

Second, it involves fostering partnerships with civil society organisations, in particular those working at the ground level who are in contact with residents. They are effective structures through which to ensure people are informed and can facilitate the quick adoption of measures aimed at preventing unnecessary exposure to the virus. Furthermore, they can facilitate links with governance structures. Neighbourhood watches, community policing forums, clergy and teachers, to mention a few, are also powerful agents to inform people about the risks and prevention measures. 

Third, it necessitates the opening of economic activities that do not cause a threat to the public as far as the set public health protocols are concerned such as those prohibiting public gatherings. Obviously, such opening should be facilitated within a framework that promotes employer-employee responsibilities in ensuring adequate protection health procedures are established aimed at protecting both parties from exposure to the virus resulting in high levels of transmission.

Fourth, it calls for proactive use of data for evidence-based decision-making. Scientists, researchers and epidemiologists are generating empirical evidence about the virus, its transmission, the incubation time to the presentation of symptoms and the geographical spread, showing “hotspots”. This information is crucial in informing government interventions. 

Fifth, it also calls for publishing information, including on economic and social support. This, through good communication, builds and deepens the trust between government and people. Public trust in government is necessary for ensuring cooperation in all the state’s endeavours to curb the spread of the virus — and to prevent misinformation and disinformation that could create anxiety and panic.  

Sense-making in these desperate and uncertain times is critical. It will help prevent rigidity and erratic behaviour in people’s frantic search for answers and solutions, which will compromise the political, economic and social stability needed to withstand the ferociousness of this pandemic.

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Paul Kariuki
Paul Kariuki

Dr Paul Kariuki is the director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his own views.

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