One thing about the pandemic is the accompanying poverty of thought. Leading Western intellectuals and philosophers between New York, London, Paris and Karlsruhe, we found out, fail to say anything original or really meaningful. They only seem to rehash their pet theories, practice their well-rehearsed cynicism or vaguely project their perpetual hopes for change into the times after Covid-19. Diaries of well-known writers leave us embarrassed about the triviality of their observations. A pandemic does not seem to fit into the usual pattern of perceptions, into our analytical frameworks or the mental sensitivities of the members of our cultural classes.
All over the world bloggers suffer from the same lack of original expression. Yes, there is a lot of humour, usually picked up from ordinary folks, be they socially distancing or rebelling against government edicts – and regurgitated on twitter. But the common reaction is just an increase in the speed of blurred speech bubbles, a home office-fed hyper-activism, but little change towards a more serious form of social commentary.
In short - from intellectuals to bloggers on all continents - we all don’t know what to say.
This makes running a blog fed in from authors in 40-plus sub-Saharan countries a challenge. Voices from Africa need to be gathered and balanced by categories of country, region, language, gender and profession. But how, as an author to this blog would you write about the response to Covid-19 in your vicinity, not following the mad cycle of news and make what you say relevant for readers in other African or European countries? No easy task.
Yet, there are issues galore: the impossibility of social distancing versus the advantages of close-nit communities; the lack of overall social protection versus many small ways to help each other; the lack of intensive care units and hospital beds versus the valuable experience from having dealt successfully with other pandemics; the collapse of supply chains versus quickly taken steps towards import substitution; the urgent need for international debt relief versus many examples of local resilience; the astounding capabilities of some governments in rallying their citizens versus the possible lack of alternatives to an herding approach; human rights violations and illegitimate political moves under the cover of Covid-19 versus activists, lawyers and journalists fighting back even under the limitations of lockdown.
For more than two months our blog series has been covering many of those issues from different angles and through varying approaches. We hope that in describing these ambivalences we have managed to provide a fair representation of Africans responding to the pandemic.
Yet even here, on the world’s most innovative continent, there seems to be a certain lack of imagination and prescription. Senior professors found it hard to express their arguments on one and a half page of text. Journalists suddenly lost focus in their writings and wandered aimlessly across their contribution. Bloggers, used to 280 characters only, struggled with the task to describe the impact of the virus in one country or another in the format of 700-plus words.
As most Presidents and African governments copied and pasted the lockdowns of Western countries into their totally different African contexts there was, at least initially, much less popular resistance than one would have expected, given the levels of poverty, the precarious livelihoods and the impossibility of social distancing. Poor people depending on the daily turnover from their underpaid jobs cannot afford to work in their home office or being hindered to access their workplace.
Yet, four months after the first case of Covid-19 was registered on the African continent the publics’ patience with the pandemic is running out. Whereas the numbers of infections have been steadily increasing more and more governments see no alternative to ending the lockdown to safeguard their people’s livelihoods. The African continent is going to meet the next phase in its response to the virus.
And as we keep following the response of governments and reactions of the people, be it through “our” blog, the local press or social media, as we gather anecdotal evidence and quote modelling studies there is still a strange lack of understanding of how the virus moves and how people react. With less than two million Africans tested there is still no reliable data, which tell us how prevalent Covid-19 is in the countries’ populations. And beyond all the reading and writing about Covid-19 in Africa it is difficult to fathom how ordinary people – one by one, one family by one, one community by one – manage to cope.
Whilst the statues of Western colonialists are being toppled from their pedestals and black lives suddenly seem to matter anywhere the real trajectory of the virus from Cairo to Cape Town, through Mogadishu, Abuja and Dakar, remains an unsolved mystery. Black lives matter also in Africa.
Rolf Paasch, FES-Uganda - together with Hans-Joachim Preuss, FES-Benin - is co-coordinator of this blog.