Perceptions of Covid-19 in Mozambique and the influence of “intermediaries”

Published on 12 November 2020

Researcher, Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE)

Researcher, Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE)

When Covid-19 first emerged in China, Mozambicans were concerned about the virus reaching them due to the large traffic of people between the two countries. These tensions experienced by Mozambican citizens and authorities about the virus entering through the ‘East-West’ axis to some extent reflect “subjective risk”, or perceptions of risk stemming from experiences, cultures, values, beliefs and emotions. When Covid-19 did reach Mozambique in March 2020, however, the first cases came from travellers returning from England and South Africa.

In the context of scientific ignorance of the new virus and a sense of panic engendered by the media, intermediaries – those between citizens and state authorities, such as community, religious or traditional leaders – have been an important conduit for information to citizens. The A4EA ‘Governance at the Margins’ project interviewed 13 intermediaries, among them political figures, but also community, religious, traditional leaders, in Moatize and Nampula Districts in Mozambique to get a better understanding of citizens’ sense of risk around the virus. Emerging findings suggest that people’s perceptions and responses to Covid-19 are influenced by their experiences with state institutions, as well as by their economic situation.

The imaginaries around Covid-19 in urban and rural Settings

According to the intermediaries we interviewed in both urban and rural contexts, radio, television, friends, neighbours, relatives, and local authorities are citizens’ main sources of information about Covid-19. But this information, including on emergency measures implemented by the state, is interpreted through citizens’ experiences, beliefs and economic context, and the situation of intermediaries. Some intermediaries believe that Covid-19 is an invention of the Mozambican Government, while those who do recognise its existence cannot believe it originated from China, a country they consider developed.

Those who recognise its existence still see the fight against hunger as the priority. Some accuse people from other regional areas of being responsible for the spread of the virus. These interpretations reflect the idea of risk as subjective in the sense that these beliefs are shaped by bad experiences with state institutions and with socio-economic issues characterised by poverty.

Covid-19 and distrust

Citizens’ perception of Covid-19 as an invention of the Mozambican Government may be based on a lack of transparency. Interviewees said that the Government only gives general updates on the virus rather than presenting specifics:

“Today I was talking to some people. They don’t believe that [the disease] exists, because the government doesn’t show the infected people, they think it’s a joke disease [in the sense that it was invented]” (Male intermediary, Mualadzi-Tete, 31 May 2020).

Another asserted,

“They are saying that, at the central hospital in Maputo, there are already 80 [cases of the disease], of which 30 have recovered, 50 still [sick]. They are just speaking, because they’re not showing it on television like in other countries. It’s for us to see it as in other countries” (Female intermediary in Namicopo-Nampula, 3 June 2020).

The interviewees’ distrust may reflect the already fragile relationship between state and citizen, also marked by lack of transparency and by poor accountability.

Poverty eclipses Covid-19

In a context of deep poverty, interviewees said that the fight against hunger – a more present danger – is prioritised over Covid-19 preventative measures. There is the information but not the money to invest in preventative measures, “Yes, we have [information about Covid-19] [but] when we talk about masks people say they do not have money to buy” (Female intermediary in Cateme Headquarters-Tete, 26 May 2020).

If they do have money, they prioritise buying food,

“They really don’t have [financial resources], it is not because they do not want [to prevent Covid-19 by purchasing masks], they want, but there are no options, let’s see, for example, a person who doesn’t work, even if this person can make an effort and manages to sell firewood or grass, and gets 30 Meticais, this amount is used for [to buy] flour, to support his/her children, this person can’t use this amount to buy masks” (Male intermediary, Nampula, 27 April 2020).

One intermediary said that, even though she is aware of preventative measures, such as “washing hands, putting on a mask, staying at home” (Female intermediary, Nampula, 3 June 2020), she refuses to obey them, especially “staying at home” because it hinders her ability to earn to buy food, “what I do not accept, is to not be allowed to go to the market, to go sell. It is for my children, my grandchildren and me to starve to death? I do not accept it!” (Female intermediary, Nampula, 3 June 2020).

Covid-19 and the search for culprits

Some intermediaries see the spread of Covid-19 as directly related to the behaviour of ‘others’ in their region. They view these ‘others’ as being by nature disobedient, in the sense that they are deliberately failing to comply with Covid-19 prevention measures:

“Look, most of them […] who don’t want to comply with these things [the prevention measures], are these families from the coast; from Monapo District, Nacala, Mozambique Island to this route of Angoche. These people have a difficult behaviour, that the best way to resolve is to capture them and give orders [to punish]. For example, there, some have [a mask], but in the pocket, and they don’t want to wear, while they are there…” (Male intermediary, Nampula, 27 April 2020).

This regional stereotype reveals the existence of tensions between different groups in Nampula Province – as in other contexts in Mozambique –  which is manifested by blaming ‘others’, in this case, those from the coast, such as Mozambique Island, Nacala and Angoche, and, those from the interior, such as Monapo, for the problems that affect those who consider themselves native to Nampula District.

Covid-19 and subjective risk

Preliminary data from our Governance at the Margins fieldwork in urban and rural neighbourhoods of Mozambique shows that the way people interpret and respond to Covid-19 reflects “subjective risk”. Citizens are mostly influenced by their past experiences with state institutions, but also their current socio-economic situation. Both aspects – experiences and socio-economic issues – and also culture, should be taken into account to get a more contextualized understanding of the dynamics of the pandemic, and therefore how to implement more effective responses to it.

Lúcio Posse and Egídio Chaimite are lead researchers on the A4EA Governance at the Margins project in Mozambique.

They would like to thank Alex Shankland for their comments on an earlier version of this blog’ and the research assistants (Andissene Andissene, Gerson Selema, Muaziza Omar e Zildo Tamele) who conducted these interviews.

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