IOL / 01 February 2022 / RUDI BUYS


Rudi Buys discusses the most recent social listening report on views relating to the pandemic. Picture Leon Lestrade/African News Agency/ANA.
Rudi Buys discusses the most recent social listening report on views relating to the pandemic. Picture Leon Lestrade/African News Agency/ANA.

The Covid-19 resource portal of the Department of Health last week published its most recent social listening report on views relating to the pandemic.

Report 33 indicates several trends, including greater confusion with changing scientific reports and differing expert opinions on new variants.

Trust in public authorities is reportedly decreasing due to sentiments that the risk of infection is lower and that health authorities are guilty of fear-mongering. Fears are increasing for the longer-term effects of vaccines.

There is widespread and increasing resistance to wearing masks and health interventions which are not primarily based on medication, such as exercise or dietary habits.

Reading what people share and talk about in public, they are less fearful of the threat of the pandemic for their families and communities – South Africans seem to have an increased appetite for risk.

Commentators often argue these trends simply and reasonably follow societal fatigue, with the threat of infection and the limits to daily life that they must contend with under Covid-19 regulations.

Analysts study the social, political and economic impact of the pandemic. Especially relating to vaccine mandates, commentators deepen the analysis to reveal more fundamental and competing understandings of citizen freedoms, rights and responsibilities.

Philosophical and faith conversations deepen the debate even more, and highlight emerging questions regarding the historical significance of a pandemic and what it means for how we make sense of being human.

Read as psychosocial performances by endless diversities of citizens, collectives and the state, two assumptions regarding the broader social realities that societies face emerge, namely, that humanity inevitably is at the mercy of nature, and how the world responded to risk developed mainly in relation to the pandemic.

Put differently: who we are and what we do today is an outcome of the pandemic, rather than what came before – a “theory of deficit” that defines how we deal with uncertainty and risk today, as behaviours determined solely by an outside force.

The argument that the pandemic simply intensified pre-existing ways of how citizens and societies dealt with threats and probabilities offers an alternative theory, namely that risk appetite today is rooted in who a society is and was becoming before the pandemic – a “theory of agency” that defines our actions as of our own making.

As outlined here, the theories of deficit and agency only emphasise two distinct, even if related, aspects in how societies respond to uncertainty.

A “theory of edgework” offers a more useful way to make sense of how societies increasingly respond to the pandemic, as shown in the trends of decreasing willingness among South Africans to adhere to Covid-19 regulations.

Edgework refers to risk-taking behaviours relating to boundaries of safety in the face of well-known threats – what people do at the edges of a safer world.

Much like when adventure athletes, who jump from cliffs only with a parachute and so consciously face the certainty of death if it does not open, people who consciously opt not to follow Covid-19 regulations intentionally challenge the edges of safety.

Edgeworkers aren’t reckless, but devote significant effort to prepare for edgework as a deliberate encounter with the boundaries of order and disorder – the boundaries between what can be anticipated and what is unpredictable.

Report 33 shows that rather than a new era of risk appetite, South Africans are returning to their lives as edgeworkers, well familiar with the uncertainties that come along with building a new nation, with anticipated and unpredictable realities.


* Rudi Buys is the executive dean at the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor of the African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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