Africa and Covid-19: the challenges of the disease in a society in crisis

John Igué, Retired Professor of Geography, Scientific Director of the Regional Analysis and Social Expertise Laboratory (LARES), Cotonou, Benin.

Image: of Gilbert Yoti, FES Markets and Urban Arteries before lockdown, Kampala

Africa, since the slave trade, colonization and poor governance during the independence period, has always been a continent of crises.  These took up many forms: crises of underdevelopment, poor governance and poverty, characterized by acute social tensions, caused over the last years by the failure of the democratization of the State and the society, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the persistence of endemic diseases such as leprosy, smallpox, malaria and recently HIV Aids and Ebola.

Some of those diseases have so far never found appropriate solutions both through improving health infrastructure and through making effective medicines available on the market.  It is in this context of equipment and drugs and medicines deficiency that Covid-19 virus is currently operating.

The impact of this new disease, by its mode of contamination will be very severe here because of the various deficiencies of African society.  Indeed, the mode of operation of the African society and the nature of its economy do not facilitate the measures suggested to limit the spread of Covid-19.  This is the reason why most African States have chosen to practice only partial lock down.

The functioning of the African society is mainly based on mass gatherings through precarious and populous human settlements, the types of unhealthy dwellings where several households live together and a distribution economy based on the periodic markets within which coexist thousands of sellers and buyers.

The nature of the economy, essentially based on the informal, is in contradiction with confinement.  The informal sector's activities include periodic markets, the main urban streets and the itinerant system along roads.  It is from those workplaces that actors acquire daily income spent the same day for the survival of households.  This informal system of precarious income of a daily nature makes it possible to accumulate only little income.  This means that those actors do not have enough savings to protect themselves in the medium and long terms.  The little financial reserves generated by the informal sector are most often placed in tontines (savings clubs) instead of banks whose earnings are not immediately available.  Everyone would have to wait for their turn, the duration of which depends on the number of people engaged in those tontines.  Income generated by the informal sector outside their daily nature is not flexible to deal with an emergency.

Under such conditions, the fight against Covid-19 for the poor strata requires the financial support from the State, which never has sufficient financial reserves to mobilize for social emergencies due to an operation highly dependent on foreign aid.  Such a situation results in the complete disarray of African societies confronted by Covid-19 pandemic.

It is therefore urgent that alternative measures be quickly taken.  These are slow to come because of the panic caused by the disease.  Instead, all States are moving towards forgiveness of their debts owed to donors, the demand for a more increased international aid and national solidarity through donations from some few patriots.

To avoid this, Africa must innovate in the face of the current nature of its economy in order to be up to the emergency phenomena.  It must thoroughly review the functioning of its society and its economy by strengthening ancestral values based on solidarity, sharing and austerity. Africans have gone too far in Western mimicry, with as consequence the appearance of a wealthy class arrogant enough in their behaviour and that of a growing layer of the poor, sheltered in urban ghettos.  The discourse on accumulation must be revisited in favour of a sharing economy, which must give more room to a new approach to development and the role of the State.

As for development, the focus must be more on human well-being and security than on income per capita.  In so doing, the base of the economy will be lying on the search for solidarity-oriented activities aiming at improving human resources, increasing work productivity, diversifying production and reviewing the consumption pattern of the elites more oriented towards the international market than towards supporting local production.

Concerning the role of the State, Africa must reform its mode of governance by working for the emergence of a more responsible leadership, aware of the issues of power, and of the interests of the governed populations.  The new African leaders must work towards the promotion of a more peaceful and safer social framework and for a better awareness of the poor strata through an effective political supervision, a renovated communication and literacy programme.  That’s the cost to enable Africans to better take up the development challenges and to face the epidemiological crises like that of Covid-19 for example.  Africans must finally think about a new economy less dependent on income deriving from raw materials and on the instability of the global markets.

(English translation of French original version)

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