Any doubt stemming from the first confusing information on social networks was removed by images of victims and lined up coffins that reached us. COVID-19 is real and people are dying from it. If countries with high-level health care systems are seemingly helpless before the disease, what would be the case for Africa? Yet fear spreads even faster than the virus. Fear of the unknown and loneliness are more nurtured and exacerbated than sound and constructive information. Stress is omnipresent. Some got deadlocked by hustle and bustle and excess; COVID-19, they do not want to hear about it.
How to introduce the physical distancing that the virus imposes on us in our habits of neighbourhood, friendliness, and of community living? Talking to each other behind masks, celebrating our marriages, burying our dead ... living through these life-changing events being 50, being 10, being alone. Working at distance, stop living ... as before. COVID-19 survival codes convey social aberrations; almost impose new social norms. This is the first difficulty we observe when it comes to behavioural change.
The other difficulty comes from the fact that the expected behavioural change poses an overwhelming dilemma for the majority of the people. Who will carry the financial burden of the pandemic? No solutions to this social equation, no clear answer to this question, which induces an obvious tension at all levels: individual, interpersonal, positional or ideological. In the absence of alternatives, the vulnerable members of society maintain their activities; and their quest for survival risks being a vector of virus transmission. COVID-19 emphasizes inequalities and widens the range of impact of precariousness. In the near future, there are fears of dismissals ... The psychosocial risks relating to work are very real.
Benin has a people of believers; the decision to close the places of worship was not simple and easily accepted by all. In practice, the relationship to transcendence has been strengthened; the spiritual dimension of life has gained momentum; despite the ban on gatherings. If it can be said that citizens have a response plan, closer social ties and a stronger sense of belonging are at the top of the list. This mental action reduces the number of isolated people; a major asset against loneliness that kills as surely as the coronavirus; united, ants cross the river.
To move forward, wishes are expressed spontaneously that a group of experts will suggest solutions that correspond to our habits; applicable even in our remotest regions. Elsewhere people use a combination of antibiotic, zinc and chloroquine ... Do we have to do exactly the same? Perhaps looking more closely, a herbal tea of neem leaves or roots and other locally well-known plants and herbs might just fit the bill. Has our government approached the wise and knowledgeable in our society?
The visibility of a scientific community - a symbol of our collective intelligence, that works, that communicates its doubts and certainties, that answers questions - and that embodies national pride, our value system, our endogenous and modern know-how, is part of the means of collective growth in times of crisis. It is a matter of self-esteem, individual; but of a collective self-esteem, too. It is also a matter of a fruitful assistance to other peoples, of our input and active solidarity against the pandemic.
The absence, the silence, and the crazy rumours brought forth by COVID-19 reveal an individual or collective memory that has kept track of the painful past. Old wounds re-open and lead to disproportionate reactions. "Do we have to keep silent and become once again guinea pigs, subjects, slaves ...?" The current strong anxieties are also an expression of those old individual and collective wounds, and among them, the social image of our people: the image of an Africa on its knees, below its potential with outstretched hands evokes the memory of slave ships, while its children are rushing to sea.
When Ahluikponoua, princess of the royal court of Abomey ordered a drink and a bottle of imported beverage was handed to her, she exclaimed: "When are we going to brew our own drinks and sell it to others?" This time of global reflexion is conducive to a meditation about the trust we have in ourselves. As a family, facing the rising generations, nationally and internationally. What do we do with the wealth of our people and our populations? It is time that we update the creative genius of everyone, of others and of all, and that it becomes the driving force for our national development and that of humanity.
It is step by step that the population will understand COVID-19, and the conclusions to be drawn for the long term. However, one can already note that this pandemic reminds us of our belonging to the same humanity; there is only one human race, which today is at war with an invisible and unknown enemy. It also invites us to find more mature solutions to the issues of social security.
It offers us an opportunity to internalize and rediscover the benefits of social ties and social support as a shield or a bulwark against our individual and collective vulnerabilities. For having tasted the happiness of meditating, of taking time with the family, of slowing down our pace without the sky falling upon us; may we keep from this crisis our ability to seek the essential and give way to our humanity.
Shall we keep on running frantically under pressure or are we going to regain control of our lives? Or shouldn’t we start making our plans and programs in order to better respect our bodies and the environment, living closer to our profound ambitions, finding solid support in ourselves, and rediscovering the meaning of life.
Beatrice LALINON GBADO from Benin is a social psychologist, writer and founder of “Editions Ruisseaux d'Afrique”.
(English translation of French original version)