Wednesday, April 8, 2020

My Life in Botswana during the Coronavirus Pandemic (Part 1)

April 9, 2020

Everybody has problems nowadays. I am taking this opportunity to document some of my own.

I am in Botswana with my wife for the 2019-2020 academic year (from the end of June 2019 to the end of August 2020). Usually Botswana is a lovely country, and my wife and I enjoy spending time here. For Africa (in comparison to Togo for example), it is a very easy country to live in. No wars. No violence. Regular transparent elections. Friendly people. Easy access to amenities. Ga go na mathata (“No problems” in Setswana).

I am here to do research on the Khoisan languages. In Botswana they call these languages Sesarwa. The three languages in particular that I am looking at are Sasi, Kua and Cua. I have been doing research on the Khoisan languages of southern African (Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) since 1996.

Getting ready for this research in Botswana took massive amounts of determination, effort, time and money. I have basically been planning for this trip since 2016. But now, it has all been cut short, and I have failed to accomplish much of what I set out to do.

My problems with the Coronavirus really started on Wednesday March 18, 2020, when I received the following message from the NYU IRB:

Suspension of in-person research
March 18, 2020
To: NYU Researchers Conducting Research Involving Human Subjects
From: NYU Washington Square Institutional Review Board

Effective immediately, all in-person research interactions with human subjects must be suspended if that research is approved under the auspices of the NYU Washington Square IRB.

I immediately called the NYU IRB (Alison Dewhurst, the Human Research Compliance Director) and asked her to clarify. Did the suspension apply to me, in Botswana (I was incredulous)? Yes, it applied to me as well as everybody else. No in-person research, anywhere in the world, if you are affiliated with NYU. She was polite in answering all my questions, but firm. They knew this decision was going to negatively affect many people in a very serious way, but they were afraid that NYU research would take lives.

At this point in time, NYC (where the NYU IRB is located) had already started seeing lots of cases of the Coronavirus. But I felt the decision was a little premature for Botswana since at the time, there were no reported cases in Botswana and the government of Botswana itself had taken no measures. I felt it would have been possible to continue to do some research, at least for a little while.

But I put aside my opinions and simply dropped all research. I complied with the suspension order to the letter.

My usual pattern in doing this research is to go to the village for two weeks to work with people, and then come back to Gaborone for a few days to catch up on e-mail and buy supplies. Sometimes I bring groups of 2-3 consultants back to Gaborone to work with them in my house for a week or two. Both kinds of set-ups have their advantages and disadvantages, but that is the subject of a different post. But both kinds of scenarios were effectively cancelled by the IRB suspension.

During my research this year, I am doing a lot of filming. After I shoot a short film, I transcribe and translate it with the help of the consultants. I had to stop both the filming and the transcription and translation, since both activities involve in-person research.

I thought seriously of trying to circumvent the IRB suspension in some way or the other. But then decided against it. I do not know what the punishment is for violating an IRB directive, but I imagine it might involve losing my research privileges forever. And I certainly do not want that.

I also drafted several petitions to reverse the suspension in my case (to be submitted on Cayuse, the IRB site), but in the end decided against it, especially given the fact that the government of Botswana announced a state-of-emergency not long afterward (see below).

Shortly thereafter, I decided to cancel my NSF funded grant to train students to do fieldwork on the Khoisan languages of Botswana.

This grant was the culmination of my research since 1996. I was planning on passing the torch, so to speak. That is why when I wrote to the participants on March 25, 2020, it broke my heart:

Dear Participants,

After consulting with the NSF and NYU OSP, I have decided to cancel our research trip to Botswana this summer.

The situation in the US is getting worse, and there is no end in site. Also, the future of the coronavirus in Botswana is uncertain. There are no confirmed cases in Botswana, but there are over 700 confirmed cases in South Africa.

Furthermore, the NYU IRB has suspended all NYU research until further notice. 

Of course, the NYU IRB suspension does not include contacting consultants remotely, using computers and Skype and the like. But the villages have no internet connections. And often even phone connections are weak and distorted. So I did not think it was possible to convert my research to a remote project over phone or computer.

I decided to drive to the village one last time on Thursday, March 26 and tell my consultants why I would not be coming around anymore. I love my elderly consultants and they love me, so it was a painful trip. I brought along 20 bars of soap to give away to them. In retrospect, I should have bought hundreds of bars, since a lot of people wanted them.

When we were there in the village talking to people, I got the idea of moving to the village for a few weeks to help educate the villagers on Coronavirus prevention, and also to hand out bars of soap. I got this idea by talking with some friends of ours in the village (the daughter of one of my consultants and her Zimbabwean husband), who said that education of this sort was really valuable and would help the village out a lot. Such a trip would not have been for research, so it would not be excluded by the NYU IRB suspension. Also, it was at that point not prohibited by the government of Botswana. So I got very excited, and thought that my presence in Botswana was valuable after all. I could really have a positive effect. My wife and I spent the next few days pouring over Covid-19 YouTube videos, learning the ins and outs, so we could educate the villagers. My wife is a nurse, who is actually professionally qualified to assist people medically, so I felt like I was in good hands.

But then on the same day that we got back from the short trip to the village, Thursday March 26, the government of Botswana Facebook page announced:

"Please prepare yourselves for the imminent lockdown. Our experts, led by Dr Masupu with Prof. Alexandra advise us to restrict the movement of people so we are better able to trace and treat any case that occurs. Take heed of and follow health professionals' advice and instructions. Wash your hands with soap and water. Do not argue and be difficult because that does not help prevent Covid 19. Protect yourself and everyone else. Look after the old and young. God bless Botswana!"

The background to this announcement is that South Africa had at that point several hundred positive cases of Covid-19, and had already announced a 21-day lockdown (from midnight on Thursday March 26 to midnight Thursday April 16). For people not familiar with southern Africa, Botswana and South Africa are closely interlocked countries, with people crossing the borders constantly for business and personal reasons. And South Africa is a much larger country, so Botswana depends on them for a lot of things. Anything that happens in South Africa can have an immediate impact on life in Botswana.

Because of the president’s announcement, the plans to move to the village and engage in health education fell through. If there was a lockdown, I could not roam around the village educating the villagers about how the virus is transmitted. I would be forced to stay in my small house in the village. Furthermore, I had no clear idea how long the lockdown would last. There is no electricity in the village, no gas is sold, and there is no ATM. So I decided not to go. I thought I would be in a better position to weather the storm in Gaborone.

Then on Tuesday, March 31 the Botswana government declared a “State of Emergency” (basically a lockdown), to go into effect midnight April 2, 2020. It is no accident that this declaration coincided with the first known cases of Covid-19 in Botswana. Three people were diagnosed as positive. During the lockdown, no movement outside of the house would be permitted, unless one had a permit.

Just for the record, I completely support the government’s declaration. Botswana is a small country with many vulnerable elderly people. It  does not have enough adequate medical facilities (like ventilators and ICU beds) to help people affected by Covid-19. If the virus ever became widespread, the country would be completely devastated. All of my consultants are elderly and many of them are in poor health. They would definitely be in harm’s way. The best course of action is to close down as completely as possible to prevent spread. The government’s decision is completely justified.

The regulations about buying food were unclear. Would it be possible to go to the store to buy some food if you did not have a permit?

On Monday, December 6 2020, my wife and I were walking to the store to buy food. We decided to walk, instead of taking the car, because we wanted exercise. We were stopped by a police car just outside of our house, and the police asked us where we were going. They were very polite, but also serious. We told them we were going to buy food. We said we were uncertain whether we needed a permit to go to the store to buy food, and they told us that we do not need a permit if the store is nearby. But we should go in the car, and not on foot. They repeated this several times. They also said we should buy a lot of food for a long period (not just a bottle of cooking oil, their example), so we can have the food and stay inside our home. They emphasized the staying inside part several times. As I said, they were very clear and very serious. I felt that they were giving us a warning.

The encounter with the police frightened me a bit (even though they were polite), but I am glad it happened. They made the rules clear, and I had not known what the rules were before that point. After we went into the house, we saw the patrol car go by our house again, and we had the impression (perhaps mistaken) that they were making sure we understood the rules, and that we were not walking around anymore. In fact, we have seen them on other occasions now passing our house. So they may view us as troublemakers.

My wife and I love to have an evening walk just before dusk. We usually walk around our neighborhood (Block 6), look at the houses, say hello to the neighbors and get some exercise. This helps us sleep well and is good for the health. Because of the lockdown, we can no longer take these walks. We would be stopped, and possibly fined. According to the government Facebook posts, the fine is up to 5,000 Pula (around 500 dollars) for violating the state-of-emergency orders. And I have already seen (on Facebook) that people have been charged with smaller fines for being outside.

I love to go biking in the morning. It wakes me up, clears my head, relaxes me, and lets me get ready for a day of reading and doing research. But I can no longer do this because of the lockdown. Actually, it would probably be possible for me to avoid getting any fines, just by riding early in the morning and by staying on side streets. I had thought seriously of doing this. But then I thought it is not really a good example to others, and it is not fair to my neighbors. If everybody got the idea to go for walks in the morning, we would have groups of people outside again, and the possibility of transmission would increase. So I have also stopped biking in the morning.

As a replacement to biking, I am trying to do low impact aerobics that I find on YouTube. I find this kind of exercise excruciatingly boring. It also makes my muscles ache since I am not used to it. But it is better than nothing.

As for Khoisan research, I can still work on the materials I have already collected. I have collected around 48 hours of video, 10 hours of which is B-roll. I have about 2 hours and 15 minutes of this already transcribed and translated on ELAN. So I can work on making subtitled videos, and on putting what I have already transcribed into FLEx. I have a few other small tasks of this nature that I can carry out without person-to-person contact with my consultants.

Other than that, I am just trying to keep myself occupied. We are confined to the house and the yard (jarata in Setswana). Later I will take some photos and post them for people to see what a typical Botswana house looks like.

I am trying to study some Setswana every day. I usually read one or two Daily News articles per day in Setswana, looking up 10 to 30 words for each article. It is becoming easier and easier to read them, and I am also able to follow more of the radio discussions in Setswana (especially when they are on topics from the newspapers). I always find it is helpful to break things down and give myself goals, so my goal is to learn 1000 new Setswana words by the end of April.

I am doing an interview with Paul Postal on his career in linguistics. I have around 25 pages already and there is no end in sight. I plan to try to finish this by the end of the lockdown.

There are a few other things such as papers and syllabi that I could be working on, but I am procrastinating.

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