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cloudy with a chance of screwballs

Stuart White

The World in Black-N-White

An old friend called melancholy came to visit me this week. I purposely use this old-fashioned word for what many of you will know as depression because it feels like an easier label which sits almost romantically with me, unlike ‘mental health problem’ which feels ominous and conjures up images of the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Even though referring to mental health issues is more acceptable these days, thanks to it being in the spotlight through many celebrities opening up about their struggles with anxiety, depression and mental health issues, I still squirm when I consider that I am on the same team.

As I have been working remotely, it has been easier to hide my illness. My email silence could easily be construed as being busy, when in fact I felt a shrivelled version of myself and about as useful as a chocolate teapot. As with other sufferers when I am like ‘this’, having to deal with a minor mishap as inconsequential as dropping a bag of pasta on the floor can seem overwhelming.  So, I dragged myself through the days willing myself to get better and as usual, I did.

I am fortunate that my bouts of mental illness, there I used the phrase, tend to be short and not as severe as others undergo.   It can present as anxiety, stress, depression and any of the other symptoms which make up the family called ‘mental health’. I am also lucky that I am my own boss so I can take a sick day or two without having to justify my absence to anyone. Even so, I would struggle to phone the office and say ‘I am not coping’, I am ‘not quite myself’ or ‘I can’t drive to work because I think that every car on the road is heading straight towards me and I am going to have an accident’.

Perhaps I could say I feel drained of life, have suicidal thoughts and feel like a worthless piece of crap, but like most it’s easier to say I have ‘flu.  I am not owning any of that list, by the way, but that is what it can be like as a sufferer. And they will tell you they would much rather have to own up to an intense bout of bronchitis, influenzas, tonsillitis and even cancer.

Many people cannot understand depression as an illness. To Stephen Fry people have asked “How can someone so well off, well-known and successful have depression? ‘ Alistair Campbell in an article suggested changing the word “depression” to “cancer” or “diabetes” in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question it is, pun presumably intended. Many people feel that depression, anxiety and the like are rich people’s diseases, indoctrinated, no doubt, by years of Hollywood visuals of the bored, wealthy housewife on the psychiatrist’s couch discussing the week’s trivial trials and tribulations but how wrong this is. According to a report from the US department of Housing and Urban Development , around  26% of adults (yes, a quarter) who are homeless and in shelters, live with serious mental illness.

Compare and contrast with this statistic that in the workplace nearly 70% of bosses believe that stress, anxiety or depression are not valid excuses for taking time of work, even though a quarter (same proportion!) of employees will suffer from such problems at some point each year. A thousand managers, executives and company owners as well as a thousand employees were asked to take part in a survey carried out by AXA PPP Healthcare and the findings revealed that most workers are so worried about the stigma surrounding mental health that they would not tell their bosses the truth about why they were phoning in sick.  And I get it completely. ‘Sarah has bronchitis’ …’Oh,  that’s awful’  or ‘Sarah has mental illness ‘…’Er ,what?’ (note to self ‘We can’t be employing crazies’)

What makes mental health so difficult is the measurement of it. How do you describe a big black cloud over your head or a state of complete nervousness and fear? Or as someone once described it, feeling like you are drowning and gasping for breath but everyone around you is floating and breathing. And how do you measure it and anyway, why do you have to? In 2004 in the US 25.9 million persons lost an average of work pain due to back pain – that’s  a total 186.7 million workdays lost that year – and you can’t measure that. And here’s the rub – that’s ok – mental health isn’t. I mean, come on you can relate to a bad back but not a bad mood!

But then again, I am not quite sure what needs to be done to de-stigmatize the illness.  How can I ask others to change their mind when as a sufferer, I can’t even change mine?  Deep down, I see it as a weakness, and no-one wants to admit to any such chink in their armour.  Part of the confusion is that people think depression is sadness. People think depression is crying. People think depression is dressing in black.  But people are wrong. Depression is the constant feeling of being numb. Being numb to emotions, being numb to life. You wake up in the morning just to go to bed again. When you’re depressed you don’t control your thoughts, your thoughts control you. As Stephen Fry explained, ‘it’s like having your own weather’ – think cold and damp in your corner, sunny and bright over there.

Certainly, the discussion and visibility about mental health has helped reduce the stigma around the topic yet mental health still currently receives less than 1 percent of global medical aid budgets. Domestic financing on prevention, promotion and treatment is similarly low. At present, every nation in the world is a 'developing' country when it comes to mental health. At the corporate level, companies need to acknowledge the reality by looking at some of the statistics on mental illness, appreciating how many man hours are lost due to it and coming out in the open about it. If I have a staff member who is prone to the blues, I accept that this.

I know that my personal understanding of the condition allows people to be open and honest about how they are feeling and not have to feel the shame and guilt which most sufferers often experience. I also know that if I allow the down time, as with myself I will make it up. To steal Stephen Fry’s personal weather metaphor, I make hay while the sun shines…when it’s pouring down, well then, rain stops play. 


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Is COVID-19 Flogging an Already Dead Economic Horse?

9th September 2020

The Central Bank has by way of its Monetary Policy Statement informed us that the Botswana economy is likely to contract by 8.9 percent over the course of the year 2020.

The IMF paints an even gloomier picture – a shrinkage of the order of 9.6 percent.  That translates to just under $2 billion hived off from the overall economic yield given our average GDP of roughly $18 billion a year. In Pula terms, this is about P23 billion less goods and services produced in the country and you and I have a good guess as to what such a sum can do in terms of job creation and sustainability, boosting tax revenue, succouring both recurrent and development expenditure, and on the whole keeping our teeny-weeny economy in relatively good nick.

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Union of Blue Bloods

9th September 2020

Joseph’s and Judah’s family lines conjoin to produce lineal seed

Just to recap, General Atiku, the Israelites were not headed for uncharted territory. The Promised Land teemed with Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These nations were not simply going to cut and run when they saw columns of battle-ready Israelites approach: they were going to fight to the death.

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Security Sector Private Bills: What are they about?

9th September 2020

Parliament has begun debates on three related Private Members Bills on the conditions of service of members of the Security Sector.

The Bills are Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Police (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and Botswana Defence Force (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The Bills seek to amend the three statutes so that officers are placed on full salaries when on interdictions or suspensions whilst facing disciplinary boards or courts of law.

In terms of the Public Service Act, 2008 which took effect in 2010, civil servants who are indicted are paid full salary and not a portion of their emolument. Section 35(3) of the Act specifically provides that “An employee’s salary shall not be withheld during the period of his or her suspension”.

However, when parliament reformed the public service law to allow civil servants to unionize, among other things, and extended the said protection of their salaries, the process was not completed. When the House conferred the benefit on civil servants, members of the disciplined forces were left out by not accordingly amending the laws regulating their employment.

The Bills stated above seeks to ask Parliament to also include members of the forces on the said benefit. It is unfair not to include soldiers or military officers, police officers and prison waders in the benefit. Paying an officer who is facing either external or internal charges full pay is in line with the notion of ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat or the presumption of innocence; that the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.

The officers facing charges, either internal disciplinary or criminal charges before the courts, must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Paying them a portion of their salary is penalty and therefore arbitrary. Punishment by way of loss of income or anything should come as a result of a finding on the guilt by a competent court of law, tribunal or disciplinary board.

What was the rationale behind this reform in 2008 when the Public Service Act was adopted? First it was the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that one is considered “innocent until proven guilty”. In terms of the constitution and other laws of Botswana, the presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

Withholding a civil servant’s salary because they are accused of an internal disciplinary offense or a criminal offense in the courts of law, was seen as punishment before a decision by a tribunal, disciplinary board or a court of law actually finds someone culpable. Parliament in its wisdom decided that no one deserves this premature punishment.

Secondly, it was considered that people’s lives got destroyed by withholding of financial benefits during internal or judicial trials. Protection of wages is very important for any worker. Workers commit their salaries, they pay mortgages, car loans, insurances, schools fees for children and other things. When public servants were experiencing salary cuts because of interdictions, they lost their homes, cars and their children’s future.

They plummeted into instant destitution. People lost their livelihoods. Families crumbled. What was disheartening was that in many cases, these workers are ultimately exonerated by the courts or disciplinary tribunals. When they are cleared, the harm suffered is usually irreparable. Even if one is reimbursed all their dues, it is difficult to almost impossible to get one’s life back to normal.

There is a reasoning that members of the security sector should be held to very high standards of discipline and moral compass. This is true. However, other more senior public servants such as judges, permanent secretary to the President and ministers have faced suspensions, interdictions and or criminal charges in the courts but were placed on full salaries.

The yardstick against which security sector officers are held cannot be higher than the aforementioned public officials. It just wouldn’t make sense. They are in charge of the security and operate in a very sensitive area, but cannot in anyway be held to higher standards that prosecutors, magistrates, judges, ministers and even senior officials such as permanent secretaries.

Moreover, jail guards, police officers and soldiers, have unique harsh punishments which deter many of them from committing misdemeanors and serious crimes. So, the argument that if the suspension or interdiction with full pay is introduced it would open floodgates of lawlessness is illogical.

Security Sector members work in very difficult conditions. Sometimes this drives them into depression and other emotional conditions. The truth is that many seldom receive proper and adequate counseling or such related therapies. They see horrifying scenes whilst on duty. Jail guards double as hangmen/women.

Detectives attend to autopsies on cases they are dealing with. Traffic police officers are usually the first at accident scenes. Soldiers fight and kill poachers. In all these cases, their minds are troubled. They are human. These conditions also play a part in their behaviors. They are actually more deserving to be paid full salaries when they’re facing allegations of misconduct.

To withhold up to 50 percent of the police, prison workers and the military officers’ salaries during their interdiction or suspensions from work is punitive, insensitive and prejudicial as we do not do the same for other employees employed by the government.

The rest enjoy their full salaries when they are at home and it is for a good reason as no one should be made to suffer before being found blameworthy. The ruling party seems to have taken a position to negate the Bills and the collective opposition argue in the affirmative. The debate have just began and will continue next week Thursday, a day designated for Private Bills.

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