A pandemic like Covid-19 is a danger posing an almost insurmountable challenge to every coping mechanism in Africa. Africa has been in a permanent state of crisis due largely to its position in the global concert of nations. This means that the continent’s default position consists in always translating hazards into risks.
Writing about the difference between danger and risk the German sociologist, Niklas Luhmann, described the former as an external event with potentially damaging consequences that we are not aware of and the latter as something entailing the conscious decision to do something as a consequence of a critical engagement with the external event.
This distinction has led the sociology of risk to assume danger and risk correlated with underdeveloped and developed countries by placing emphasis on two things. One was knowledge, namely the idea that where science is not strong, people are not aware of what poses a danger to their livelihood, therefore, becoming passive victims of circumstances. The other was technology, i.e. the technical capacity to respond to what one knows. Research has shown how problematic this distinction is. In my own research on coping with extreme events, I have found that taking risks is an anthropological constant. Taking risks describes the nature of human action.
The logic is the same, whether we are talking about individuals, communities or countries. Everyone is always in the process of translating dangers into risks, for acting in order to be able to act transforms dangers into calculated risks. However, what makes it difficult for Africa to do this is the extent to which structural conditions do not always allow the continent to undertake this translation process on its own terms. Development is actually a struggle undertaken by countries to enable themselves to define risk in their own terms within frameworks largely beyond their control.
In this sense, Covid-19 does not pose any particularly different kind of hazard to Africa. Just like with everything else African countries have to do to secure their own existence as nations, responding to this pandemic has followed a familiar pattern. They have to decide whether to pretend to be “normal” societies, and do the same kinds of things others are doing, or to go down a different road at the risk of conveying the impression of lacking commitment to public health.
In most developed countries, the Covid-19 hazard was translated into a risk through a simple mechanism: it was perceived as a threat to sanitary infrastructure requiring slow rates of infection, the so-called flattening of the curve, in order to protect the infrastructure and make sure it responds adequately. When several African countries rushed to declare lockdown measures of differing sorts, they, basically, adopted the translation of the developed countries. They failed to draw from their own experience in coping with crises by empowering their people to fend for themselves.
The nature of the pandemic in Africa did not place before African nations a choice between saving lives, or protecting the economic fabric. Rather, and as cruel as it may sound, it placed the choice between allowing many Africans to die without protecting the economic fabric, or allowing many Africans to die while protecting the economic fabric. With the rush to adopt lockdown measures, countries effectively withdrew protection from the only infrastructure that has served Africa reasonably well for many years, namely the social infrastructure. A local translation of risk would have entailed identifying measures to reduce the likelihood of infection while fending for oneself.
Indeed, in Africa going out to the street to secure one’s livelihood at the risk of infection is what individuals need to do in order to have a life worth protecting. Locking people down at home renders them even more vulnerable, since it not only makes them dependent on others for their survival, but also because it takes away from them the only thing giving their life meaning, i.e. the risks they take to secure their own lives.
It is probably still too early to say whether the announced doom that failed to materialize – so far, Africa has not experienced any of the horror scenarios concerned people and institutions around the world have been drawing – has given lie to the hurried measures adopted by African countries. It is clear, however, that such measures were a serious departure from local cultures of risk such that if push comes to shove it will not be Covid-19 killing people, but rather the measures taken to prevent the virus from killing people.
Elísio Macamo is Professor of Sociology and African Studies at the University of Basel, in Switzerland. He reports his research on risk in Africa in his publication “The Taming of Fate – Approaches to Risk from a Social Action Perspective – Case Studies from Southern Mozambique”, Dakar 2017: CODESRIA.