Debating Ideas is a new section run separately from the main African Arguments site. It aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond.
‘Alex de Waal’s piece is excellent. The main comment I have is that there is a reason that epidemiological models sometimes turn out to be deficient – they lack details about what numbers to attach to the intimacies of social life, for the good reason that these are not often put into words (or numbers) by those who live them. This was a key failure of Africanist anthropology during the early stages of Ebola. We had written about funerals, and funeral rituals, but this wasn’t really the danger point. Body preparation was, and we had little or no data on that topic until we asked, discreetly. A further aspect is that the adaptive behaviour needed for epidemic response is not often captured while it is happening, so officials and local responders are not singing from the same song sheet. We adjusted to this with Ebola in Sierra Leone by doing real-time ethnography (however rough-and-ready the results) and this made a difference. Responders were clearly informed that policy had to change on family care and burials. We are now at the same stage with Covid-19. Carers will have to improvise, but with advice from public health specialists about what might be dangerous or counter-productive. This (to me) is a forum for truly democratic citizen science, one where there is real respect for those who are generating new ideas on the “coal face”.’
*The original article by Alex de Waal, published in Debating Ideas, can be found here https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/19/can-there-be-a-democratic-public-health-from-hiv-aids-to-covid-19/