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Prisons, Personality Profiles & Primary Schools: UWC’s COVID-19 Research Response

Author: Melanie Snyders & Nicklaus Kruger

Why do people respond differently to lockdown regulations and COVID-19 safety procedures? How did the pandemic affect prisons? And what does it mean for basic education? UWC researchers investigated this and more during the past six months.

(Published - 28 September 2020)

“COVID-19 and the lockdown placed a visible threat on our physical and mental health, and also on our economy. As a reaction to the pandemic, we saw a range of individual and collective responses taking shape around the globe with some who ignored the problem and others choosing to adopt safety measures. This raised the question of why people opted for differential reactions towards the pandemic? Is it possible that the differential reactions can be explained by humans' perceptions of the pandemic and their consequent decisions and reactions towards it?”

Dr Erica Munnik from the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Department of Psychology, in collaboration with Dr Raquel London from the Ghent University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, conducted research into Individual differences in decision making during COVID-19. Her work, presented in a UWC webinar on Higher Education, Research and Responding To The COVID-19 pandemic, took a global look at collective and individual decision-making. The research was conducted with an online survey and 2230 participants from over 30 countries participated. The majority of participants adhered to wearing masks and practising social distancing to varying degrees. Preliminary findings suggested significant differences in social distancing practices with regards to different aspects of impulsive behaviour such as decisions affected by emotion-based responses (positive or negative) and deficits in conscientiousness more specifically, a lack of perseverance and lack of predetermination. 

“The preliminary results suggest that understanding of psychological variables and definitions can lead to insights in compliance behaviour in the management of health and behaviour,” Dr Munnik noted. It is important to look at individual decisions and underlying personality characteristics as it might explain certain behaviours, especially during pandemics. Further analysis will most probably yield other significant and interesting findings.”

COVID-19 isn’t just about individual responses, though,  it’s also about how societies, and the institutions that comprise them, react to the challenges the pandemic has posed.

Janelle Mangwanda, a researcher at the African Criminal Justice Reform (ACJR) project at UWC’s Dullah Omar Institute, explored the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system in South Africa (and beyond). 

“COVID-19 and the regulations surrounding it have impacted various aspects of the criminal justice system – including the police, the courts and the prisons. It has also impacted marginalized people who have been disproportionately affected by the regulations”, she said. 

ACJR has conducted COVID-19 related research in South Africa and on the African continent as a whole. On a domestic level, a series of factsheets have been produced focusing on simplifying the regulations, the functioning of the criminal justice system during the lockdown in South Africa and Mozambique as well as the deployment of the South African National Defence Force to enforce the lockdown. In addition, ACJR together with other civil society organizations has been involved in monitoring the National Preventative Mechanism in South Africa through the advice of the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture for people deprived of their liberty in detention centres. Furthermore, a number of opinion pieces and newsletter articles were produced relating to the prevention of COVID-19 transmission in prisons due to challenges of social distancing and overcrowding; the increase in the number of awaiting-trial prisoners during the lockdown; as well as the excessive brutal use of force in the enforcement of lockdown measures.    

In terms of a continental focus, a snap survey on the response of southern and east African countries in the context of prisons led to a journal article focusing on Africa, COVID-19 and prisons. Furthermore, ACJR hosted and presented in webinars focusing on COVID-19 and petty offences. Many African countries have established States of Emergencies and States of Disasters and have imposed lockdowns and curfews aimed at restricting movement. The regulations surrounding these measures have created new petty offences which have negatively affected the poor and marginalized given their socio-economic realities which are not conducive for a prolonged lockdown. As a result, many have contravened these regulations; not in defiance of the law, but merely for survival due to desperation and a lack of alternatives to secure food and essentials to care and feed their families. Unfortunately, the failure to abide by the lockdown regulations have attracted strict punitive measures in the form of fines and in some cases, arrest and detention which is counter-productive in the fight against the virus because bringing more people into closed and often-times overcrowded detention centres increases their chance of contracting the virus due to a lack of social distancing. ACJR argues that a human rights approach should be favoured over a criminal justice approach in response to a public health crisis.

And then there’s the thorny question of education.

Global Citizenship Transforming Society Through Education

Prof Rouann Maarman, Deputy Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Education at UWC, presented on Unmasking the State of Basic Education During the Pandemic.

“The pandemic brought with it changes that we haven’t experienced before,” he said. “But it has also highlighted issues that were already there – such as the reality of poverty and related social challenges. South Africa struggles with basic survival needs – and even in public schooling, we suffer from a ‘double schooling system’ where some schools and learners can’t afford to pay for a better schooling experience.”

He spoke about his views and research he collected on The Challenges Basic Education and Poverty South Africa has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“South African schools inherited a broken system, with decades of deliberate undermining of the educational experiences of the majority of learners,” he said. “When we entered democracy, we introduced new curricula, but we never really solved all the problems of the past. COVID-19 gives us a chance to reinvent the system – if we’re willing  to unpack the notion of what quality education really means, and explore where education is misaligned with the world we find ourselves in, and if we as higher education institutions are willing to play a part in engaging with that.”

So how are schools coping with the move to online education?

“What became quite clear when schools moved online learning was the disparities that schools would experience along the lines of digital inequalities,” noted Prof Mmaki Jantjies of UWC’s Department of Information Systems.

“We observed schools that had access to digital resources were able to move to teaching online more easily, with teachers equipped to integrate online learning into teaching plans, and learners having access to devices, the internet and data. But the reality was that many children came from households that could not even afford data.”

A study by Research ICT Africa found that South Africa has some of the highest data costs on the continent. At the same time, South African schools do not have the same level of digital resources in the form of computer labs or tablets. Prof Jantjies set out to find out more.

“What we found within our research during the COVID-19 pandemic was the critical importance of TV and radio bridging the digital divide during this pandemic – radio and TV were repurposed to enable learning to continue,” Prof Jantjies said.

“Even while the content was being digitized and placed on websites, and websites were being zero-rated, and parents and teachers were leaning into free and available mobile applications to enable learning to continue even during the pandemic, from WhatsApp to Google Classroom and more, technology which is probably not for what we consider the Fourth Industrial Revolution played such a key role during the pandemic and will continue playing this critical role. We need to consider that in future if we want learning to be fair for all.”

The Global Citizenship webinar series honours the life and the spirit of Nelson Mandela by reflecting on the role and contribution of universities in contributing to the transformation of society

Upcoming sessions will focus on:

  • Session 4: Are universities effective in global citizenship education? (October)
  • Session 5: Using global citizenship to achieve SDG and NDP goals. (November)

For more information, contact

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