QE Scholar, 2019/2020
“The primacy of place in the COVID-19 era: Looking inward translates into Afrofuturism.”
QE Scholar, 2019/2020
I A pandemic in our time
Humankind is in the midst of the worst pandemic of the 21st century (the last pandemic happened in 1918, wiping out more than 50 million people). According to World Health Organization (WHO) numbers on April 30, 2020, we now have 3,240,038 cases of COVID-19 worldwide. Of this number, over 1,010,721 people have recovered from the virus, and over 228,877 have died from it. To date, there is no dedicated treatment or vaccine (s) for COVID-19. To put everything in perspective we need to understand that on March 4, 2020, there was only 95,100 confirmed COVID19 cases globally, but within a period of one month the number jumped to over 2.5 million cases. The good news is that in the last few weeks the numbers of new COVID-19 cases have reduced. However, the response to the coronavirus is not uniform across the board because every situation/place/location/locality is different and unique.
II Pandemic discourse and Africa:
In sub-Saharan Africa for example, all nations (with the exception of Lesotho and Comoros) have reported COVID-19 cases. Currently, the majority of the countries in the region are experiencing local transmission of COVID-19 and the number of countries with widespread community transmission is also increasing. The importation of cases from affected countries within the region is also being reported – On April 30, 2020, the Mzuzu (Malawi) media reported a COVID-19 case originating from Tanzania. But Africa is doing better than most countries around the globe. Overall, Africa has over 36,850 COVID-19 cases with over 1,590 COVID-19 deaths reported as of 30 April 2020. Since April 22, 2020, there has been a 52% increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and a 26% increase in the number of COVID-19 related deaths reported in the African region. With the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the overall case fatality ratio fell from 4.7% to 4.0% between April 22 and April 30, 2020 (WHO, 2020).
Comparatively, Africa is doing better than the vast majority of places on mother Earth. But what is the way forward for Africa? In this short piece, I seek to carve out a way forward for the African region, keeping in mind that each and every locality in that region is unique and therefore would need unique sets of plans or strategies to take care of our non-human cousin called coronavirus. The key word here is ‘local’ – the place where the rubber really hits the road. On April 21 2020, Dr. Simon Dalby wrote: “Now that the initial spread has happened, how those big red circles will change in coming weeks depends on much more local effects.” (Dalby, 2020: 1). It is true that many scholars and other experts have predicted that the coronavirus could spread extremely quickly in Africa due to the informal nature of settlements within its urban centres. It is also true that for most of these urban centres in Africa, poverty is the norm, and people do live mostly in open compound residences, and essential resources (such as potable water and sanitation) are either inadequate or completely absent (Crush, 2020). As Cecilia Tacoli said at a South-South migration conference, most Africans live:
“In crowded spaces, people are forced to share accommodation and — when available — toilets. Residents are constantly on the move, often traveling on packed mini-buses to workplaces within settlements, between settlements, and between the city and rural homes. Attempting to control this kind of movement would be extremely difficult.” (Tacoli, 2020).
Most importantly, most people in African urban centres depend on the informal sector for their livelihoods. According to Crush (2020): “…people depend on informal vendors and crowded city markets for food, and because income flow is limited and irregular, people shop almost daily.” (Crush, 2020). However, it will be suicidal to recommend any strategy that is ‘not-made-in-Africa.’
African cities are different from any other cities around the globe – – and ‘different’ cities require ‘different’ models of analysis (in an upcoming think piece, I define ‘different’ as ‘local’– I profusely legitimize the word ‘different’ and I admonish all Homo Sapiens to embrace it). Like Garth Myres (See his book: African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice, 2011), I too reject the narrative that seeks to mark Africa as a ‘failed’ continent or a continent prone to disasters and violence (Myres, 2011). In my not-to-be-humble opinion, I believe that Africa must be seen as a place that showcases an alternative/legitimate vision and practice in which Africans interact with their environments based on knowledge handed down by their forebears since millennia. Africa has a ‘personality’, and it is ‘different’ from any other place on planet Earth – that ‘difference’ must be appreciated, embraced and celebrated. Unfortunately, Africa is often depicted as the most negatively impacted by resource wars and environmental disasters based on Western ways of knowing (Moyo and Sitas, 2004: 8). Unfortunately, this way of depicting Africa hardly captures the wide swath of territory that is Africa. A careful scan will indicate that African places are distinct, contrasting and yet interconnected spaces, and therefore defining and seeing Africa through an occidental lens can never be helpful – it actually makes a bad situation worse (Said, 1981).
Africans (both in Africa and in the diaspora) need to let it sink in that so far the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected advanced, progressive and rich countries (UK, France, Italy, Spain, USA etc.) and that maybe, just maybe, there is something locally unique about how the virus is moving through the region. As of Thursday April 30, 2020, the United States of America (also known as the most powerful/ richest/ enlightened/ paradise-on-earth nation on planet Earth) leads the world with 1,067,382 confirmed COVID-19 cases, followed by Spain with 239,639 cases, Italy with 203,591 cases and the United Kingdom with 165,221 cases, in that order. But in the ‘backward/primitive region of Africa’, the Republic of South Africa has the highest number of cases (5,350), with most African countries recording less than a thousand cases (Malawi has reported only thirty-six COVID-19 cases so far).
III Africa and the COVID19 pandemic:
Despite the usual focus on Africa as the most affected or left-behind in almost every ‘future’, there is always a huge hole in such stories. For example, in the current pandemic situation, and in spite of predictions of doom and gloom for Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has offered a completely different scenario about Africa. According to the WHO, “Africa is handling COVID-19 better than most and leading the way.” (WHO, April 25, 2020). WHO admits that there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on in Africa with respect to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Africans are mobilizing the innovative potential of their locals to transform the ‘usual narrative’. For example, since the start of the outbreak, WHO has been supporting African governments with early detection by providing thousands of COVID-19 testing kits to countries, training dozens of health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities. Over 40 countries in the African region can now test for COVID19. At the start of the outbreak, only two could do so. Recently, Senegal has developed a test kit for detecting COVID-19 at a reasonable cost of US$1. This kit will be distributed across the continent to assist with combating COVID-19.
WHO has also issued guidance to countries, which is regularly updated to take into account the evolving situation. Such guidelines include measures such as quarantine, repatriations of citizens, preparedness at workplaces, rigorous testing and tracing. WHO is also working with a network of experts to coordinate regional surveillance efforts, epidemiology, modelling, diagnostics, clinical care and treatment, and other ways to identify, manage the disease and limit widespread transmission. In addition, WHO is providing remote support to affected countries on the use of electronic data tools, so that national health authorities can better understand the outbreak in their countries. Preparedness and response to previous epidemics is providing a firm foundation for many African countries to tackle the spread of COVID-19 (WHO, 2020). For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is leveraging its experience with the Ebola crisis in their bid to fight COVID-19 in Africa. The expertise gained in fighting Ebola is helping public health authorities prepare for COVID-19. The DRC is one of 13 priority countries, which due to their direct links or high volume of travel with China have been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as top priorities for readiness measures. Senegal has developed a US$1 testing kit which could potentially serve the whole of the African region in terms of robust and consistent testing and contact tracing. Similarly, Ghana has one of the best tracing systems in place to date, and it may well lead Africa in showing that besides lockdown, a robust testing regimen, backed by greater self-discipline and self-control may well give us confidence that community spread is low. Other countries in the region could emulate Ghana’s example.
In Africa, a complete lockdown of communities would not work – it would be counter-productive as many people will starve to death considering the informal nature of existence (social, political and economic) in most African urban centres. In Africa, the majority of the people are local entrepreneurs who work informally across numerous sectors of society. As many African scholars and commentators alike have rightly pointed out, social distancing as envisioned by the hegemonic West is a privilege, and most people in Africa do not live like that. It is really going to be a challenge to prescribe social distancing as the only solution for dealing with this pandemic – any insistence on this is a recipe for disaster. African problems must be solved by implementing African solutions (a mantra repeated over and over for the last 250 years or more). Africans need to leverage the capabilities that exist in Africa. Africans (wherever they may be) need to connect with each other and drive innovation both in the public and private sectors across Africa based on a philosophy of glorifying ‘difference’.
IV – Getting out of this mess
Another ‘world’ is possible, and a new era of ‘Afrofuturism’ is on the horizon. As suggested by Moyo and Sitas (2004), ‘Afrofuturism’ is a reimagining of Africa as dynamic, a continent that possesses a unique potential to usher in a new era of sustainable development that is context and knowledge-system specific. ‘Afrofuturism’ envisions an African urbanity/urbanism in which the two-way relationship between Africans and their environment is still based on knowledge handed down over a long period of time. ‘Afrofuturism’ offers hope of rejecting bad futures that maintain colonial legacies and structures, “as well as social, political, and economic discrimination” (Moyo and Sita, 2004: 25). In my April 2020 article on ‘COVID-19 and fear’, I urged the world to: “….seriously engage in quarantine and testing”, today, I am adding “robust and continuous testing for COVID-19” for planet Earth, especially for the African region. In this scenario, I envisage an aggressive program of testing for all African countries in order to put Africa in an even better position in the coming weeks and months. It is not ‘prophetic’ for me to say that in the African region, handwashing will continue to be an African trait moving forward. Africans need to tap into their innovative and creative selves as they have done throughout human existence on this planet. Recent reports indicate that this will continue unabated. As we all know, local people know the health implications of thorough handwashing with soap and warm water, and they are instituting all kinds of innovative handwashing regimen all over their communities to combat COVID-19. Even though progress on vaccines and drugs to deal with the virus is not as fast as many would like, we have an opportunity to engage in preventative measures until a vaccine is developed to deal with COVID-19. We are all living on planet Earth as part of nature — there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there are natural creatures, and this includes all our non-human cousins – the coronavirus is one such non-human cousin. As Inoue (2016) puts it:
“If we assume that there are many worlds, we could assume that there are many natures, meaning not only different understandings and conceptions of nature but also of the society-nature relations” (Inoue, 2016:8).
COVID-19 has awakened Homo Sapiens to sit up and think about life and what it is all about – the world is not about things, the world is about local knowledge and leveraging it to enhance our lives on planet Earth – any other way of looking at it would be uncivilized.
Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are in the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).