A Disease of Privilege? Social Representations in Online Conversations about Covid-19 amongst some South Africans during lockdown

Keywords: social representations, socio-economic inequalities, privilege, South Africa, Covid-19


Responses by South Africans to communication from their government about the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown and proposed courses of action for containment have highlighted previously incommunicable socio-economic inequalities pervading access to healthcare. Government’s reaction in a bid to stem the Covid-19 global pandemic, though slow at commencement, has often been swift and decisive with regular briefings by ministerial clusters and the presidency in collaboration with various experts, displaying apparent transparency and ease of comprehension for audiences. However, there have arisen a range of oft-negative responses by citizens such announced courses of action, often based on representations of who the face of the virus is and in turn influencing their responses to government’s courses of action. A Social Representation approach was followed, with focus on citizen representations made regarding the spread of the Covid-19 virus, arising social representations and potential health communication consequences. The PEN-3 cultural model on health beliefs and actions presents a cultural yet contextual understanding of public health and health promotion by predicting people’s behaviour within their immediate environment. Social representations in reaction to initial news of the virus were those of a disease of those ‘lucky’ enough to be well-travelled and those privileged i.e. not the majority of South Africa, especially not black people. This article analyses media reports of social representations of Covid-19 captured from South African social media conversations. These conversations illuminate underlying social representations of community beliefs fuelling the spread of the virus. The study contributes to social representation scholarship by providing a local perspective of factors affecting non-compliance with healthcare directives for Covid-19 because of existing socio-economic inequalities.

Author Biographies

Karabo Sitto, University of Johannesburg

Karabo Sitto is a lecturer in the Department of Strategic Communication, Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg. Her research areas of interest include online communication, identity, social representations, as well as teaching and learning.

Elizabeth Lubinga, University of Johannesburg

Prof Elizabeth Lubinga is an associate professor in the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Johannesburg. Her research interests include health communication, and political communication. She has published numerous articles and chapters in books within the field of communication. She is an experienced supervisor at the postgraduate level. Her teaching experience includes topics on health communication and mass media communication at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

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