An African contextual response to Covid-19
While international guidelines such as those issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are critical to fighting the pandemic, African nations must customise these guidelines to address the home contexts and realities.
As more African countries are implementing lockdown measures in efforts to contain COVID-19, panic is spreading at many levels across African society.
On March 25th, having entered a state of emergency a few days earlier, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a compulsory 21-day national lockdown. A few days later, Zimbabwe followed suit and many more SADC and Africa Union member states will be expected to do the same in the coming few days. Evidence is already showing that lockdowns are critical in containing the virus, and we desperately need them.
The luxury of social distancing
In South Africa, the response to the lockdown has been varied, depending on who one is and where one is located. Inequality has once again reared its ugly head in the response to COVID-19. Even before the President’s announcement, sensing that the country was headed towards a lockdown, many middle class, upper middle class and rich people were able to quickly bulk buy and stock supplies that can last for for several months.
For those who depend on month to month salaries – they had to wait until payday, which in many cases fell on the other side of lockdown. Those dependant on government support were in the same boat, as these are paid at the very end of the month.
This meant that these large sections of the population had to start lockdown without stocking any food supplies. These sections of society now have to – in the midst of the lockdown – go out and buy food supplies, and from what we have seen – further expose themselves to contracting the disease. In panic and desperation social distancing is hardly being practised.
We have seen the same too with public transport services; the masses have not had the luxury of social distancing.
Not easy to quarantine
Then there are millions upon millions who rely on street vending. If they are not able to be on the street to sell their wares, they cannot feed their families. In the absence of social safety nets, a 21-day lockdown will be a nightmare for them.
Also, it will not be easy for hundreds of millions across the African continent to quarantine for 21 days – most of them in a small one-room shack with an average of 7 to 10 people of all ages without the luxury of running water, electricity or inside toilets. At any time of the day, if any of the family member needs to relieve themselves, they will have to walk some distance to find the nearest toilet.
The same applies to several families within concentrated blocks of neighbourhoods, and the same goes for other services such as water, which is only available at communal water points.
The harsh reality is that millions of people live in extreme poverty with no basic services, poor health services and without sustainable livelihoods. They depend on going out each day for piece jobs, small trading, just to be able to secure food for the next day. Life is pretty much lived one day at a time. Hence a blanket lockdown model which assumes that people have access to good basic services, while very well intentioned may not yield the same results.
There is growing frustration in South Africa that populations living in high density areas are defying the national lockdown and the government efforts to quarantine the country to fight the pandemic. There have been numerous allegations that people in most such areas are living life as usual and not being able to take the basic necessary precautions such as social distancing and hand washing.
Sanitizers or food?
In this we should also acknowledge that there are some who are just blatantly ignoring the compulsory lockdown. While it is easy to judge and react harshly to this response to the lockdown, it is also important to consider the realities of this group and use these circumstances to craft the best response for the African context.
How should Africa successfully fight COVID-19 as many lack the most basic social services such as health services, reliable supply of clean water and sanitary services, secure livelihoods, and decent housing?
The African Union will urgently need to take leadership and decisive action in crafting a COVID-19 response which will be effective. Families are having to choose between buying sanitizers or food to feed their families. Many are scared they will suffer from food scarcity inside their homes as they adhere to restrictions and lockdowns.
Given this reality, blanket responses will not assist Africa much to fight the pandemic. While international guidelines such as those issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are critical to fighting the pandemic, African nations must customise these guidelines to address the home contexts and realities.
Listen to the UN
Regional coordination in dealing with COVID-19 is also all the more crucial. Regional, continental and international solidarity is very important – resources should be harnessed for collective response efforts, if we are to succeed in this endeavour.
In his address on 28th March, The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, indicated his fears that the COVID-19 will kill millions of people across Africa due to its fragility and vulnerability. «We can still prevent the worst in Africa, but without a massive mobilisation we will have millions and millions of people contaminated, which means millions of deaths». He also said that Africa's booming youth population will not be spared.
Regional blocks such as SADC led by African Union need to take heed of the UN’s advice and urgently step up their response actions to prevent cross-border, and they must act fast as the virus is not waiting. African Union needs to come up with an urgent African customised response to the virus.