Debating Ideas is a new section that 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. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Public media conveys the widespread fear that ‘Africa’ will be ‘hit worst’ when the virus starts to fully spread. Conflict zones that are out of state control, marginalized areas without appropriate medical services, poverty, the feared pre-existing illnesses that render the virus more lethal seem to be on people’s minds when thinking of the African condition in view of Covid-19. However, the strict safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus applied in all African countries do not make similar headlines.
But, just like in Europe or elsewhere, governments order strict regulations concerning hygiene, the rules of distance and the request to stay at home, which are publicized by the media. In N’Djamena, Chad, ‘hand-washing devices are now in front of every public service, supermarket or home’, as the anthropologist Remadji Hoinathy explains. Here, the first case of Covid-19 was a Moroccan citizen who was infected by virus and who later recovered. Since then, the topic ‘has become a major concern, a subject of debate and the most discussed topic in social networks’, he points out. That said, another topic has almost equal rank: ‘Covid-19 stands in competition with the military offensives of Chad against Boko Haram at the Lake.’
Hoinathy refers to the Chadian government’s reaction to the recent ambush by Boko Haram fighters, killing nearly 100 Chadian soldiers in the Lake Chad region. In return, the country’s president, Idriss Déby, led a fatal counter-attack, killing 1,000 Boko Haram fighters, as several news agencies report. But as fighting and poverty have been recurrent in the Central African country, the current situation gives another twist to the people’s need to be inventive in the face of deficiencies.
Faced with Corona-related restrictions that include the closure of restaurants, schools, transport, bars, and places of worship, people constantly try to get around these restrictions. Leading back to a long-lived daily practice of making do (‘se débrouiller’ in French), Hoinathy observes that, for instance, food places open up in private homes to cater for those who are dependent on going to work and finding food during the day – as it has long been a daily necessity to know about the street police control points and to take the muddy backstreets instead to move from A to B.
Comparing Hoinathy’s perception of the effects of Covid-19 on the daily life of people in the Chadian capital N’Djamena to that of Babacar Fall in Dakar, Senegal, I perceive a difference in trust in governmental measures. While in both situations, state regulations, like a curfew from 7pm until 6am, are violently enforced by police and military, the Chadian population seems to agree less with these measures than people in Senegal. I argue that the ways in which daily habits change in the face of this new threat depends on how the people perceive their government and the way it takes care of the population.
In the Nigerian city of Ibadan, for example, square boxes have been painted on the floor at public railway stations, each two metres apart. People are supposed to stand there when they wait for the train. The pictures shared on Instagram by BBC Africa show people calmly and peacefully accepting and adhering to these rules.
Above all, however, this means that respective habits change in different ways. How can you cope with everyday life if you are used to shopping at a market where many thousands of people crowd closely together every day? How can one get from place to place when the cheapest option is in the crowded shared taxis, which often accommodate up to 20 people? How to cope with the new rules varies, because the solutions are also culture-specific. The questions of the effects on poverty, conflict and crises, so often highlighted in Western media, therefore seem less relevant than the identification of similarities in the reactions in the different regions of the world.
An exchange with Babacar Fall, and with Remadji Hoinathy, brings the everyday lifeworlds of living with the Covid-19 crisis to the fore. Both countries, so far, are relatively mildly hit by the pandemic – a fact that Felwine Sarr recently also attributed to the lesser global integration of the African continent as compared to Europe or the US – but where staunch measures to prevent the virus’s spread have been put in place in a timely way, nevertheless.
‘In order not to take risks, my family and I have been staying at home – and as normally everyone is running here and there, the family is coming together in a new way’, Babacar Fall tells me about one of the few ‘plus’ sides of the current situation, ‘but for a society of contact, interaction and closeness, where people express their feelings with warm greetings, warm handshakes and frequent hugs, it was traumatic to have to observe the measures of social distancing and no longer to touch each other.’ Remadji Hoinathy remarks on the changes in public spaces that easily compare more or less to what I have seen in Berlin, Germany: ‘As elsewhere, we have seen changes in behaviour. The first is the wearing of masks by some people. Very quickly these masks were bought out from the points of sale. The Chadians were already using them against the harmattan dust, but the demand took a different turn. The hydro-alcoholic gels were also emptied from supermarkets and pharmacies at a high price. Next, chloroquine tablets were emptied from pharmacies.’ The globally circulating mis-information about the effectiveness of this outdated anti-malaria medication was fast to reach Chad, where its use is even propagated by the country’s president.
On 8 April 2020, Senegal reported 244 infected cases, 2 deaths and 113 cured. In a widely publicized ‘crusade against Covid-19’ the Head of State invited all political leaders and civil society personalities into a political dialogue to build a consensus. But, as Babacar Fall reminds us, ‘it should, however, be noted that with the introduction of the curfew from 8 p.m., signs of mistrust were noted with young people in the Dakar district of Medina who braved the ban on the second day of the curfew (26 March 2020).’ While in Berlin, Germany, the police walks, heavily armed, through parks and public spaces to tell people not to gather in larger groups, the police in Senegal took no such half-hearted measures: taxi and motorcycle drivers who broke the curfew were arrested, and in Kaolack, in the centre of the country, 96 people were arrested and 19 vehicles immobilised. ‘People who had broken the curfew were brutalized by the police before being released and forms of deviance were thus discouraged’, Babacar explains, ‘and attempts were also noted to violate the ban on travel from one region to another by taking circuitous routes avoiding major roads.’ In Chad, regulations include the ban on meeting with more than 10 people in public spaces, driving with more than 4 people in one car and the obligation to wear masks in public.
While in Chad, people fearing not obtaining food to buy find clandestine measures of circumventing governmental measures, the Senegalese government ordered food to be distributed to people classified as poor, and that their electricity and water bills were to be paid for two months. Senegalese employees were asked to take their holidays now, in the hope that all would return to normal before companies might not be able to pay the salaries. And the tourism industry also received national funding. All these measures helped to maintain social and political peace, as Babacar Fall explains. ‘It was the deaths of two celebrities, Manu Dibango and the journalist Pape Diouf who died of corona, that made people aware that everyone could be infected and that prevention was the only way to break the chain of transmission of the virus by not catching it.’ Concerts and cultural events have also been cancelled in Chad, for example one by the singer Maoundoé, a Chadian celebrity. But here, the measures to give direct help to the population seem to be restricted to the Chadian security services being deployed, particularly to prevent abuses of governmental regulations.
The restrictions also fall on religious and national festivities. In both countries, Easter Mass was not celebrated on 12 April 2020 and, in Senegal, the pilgrimage in homage to the first Khalif of the Mouride Brotherhood (1927–45) was celebrated on 28 March 2020 with sobriety without significant movement of people to Touba, the capital of Mouridism and the second largest city in Senegal. Senegal’s Independence Day, which this year coincides with the sixtieth anniversary of the country’s accession to international sovereignty (4 April 1960), was not celebrated with the originally planned parade of corps, youth movements and army detachments on Dakar’s Boulevard du Général De Gaulle. Instead, a simple colour-raising ceremony organised in the courtyard of the presidential palace marked the event. In a national solidarity campaign, trade unions, political parties, sports corporations (wrestlers, footballers) private companies, and civil society personalities mobilized resources to deal with Covid-19. The Highest Khalif of the Mourid Brotherhood, Serigne Montakha Mbacké has contributed 200 million de francs soit equivalent to 305,343.51 Euros as his participation in the national effort to fight against Covid-19. In addition, the religious leaders ordered prayers and propagated the double message of praying and respecting hygiene measures to save Senegal from Covid-19.
In a final statement, Fall takes a critical look from Dakar at the rest of the world. While Senegal is taking staunch measures, but has not been hit severely so far, he remarks that ‘the big lesson is the vulnerability of the world and the relationality of the world order’. By which he means that ‘it was Cuba, it was China that came to the rescue of Italy’s health system. France transported patients to Germany because of its limited capacity to care for its patients. Covid-19 shook the world and stopped the march of the world. Humanity will have to reflect on the place of health in development – and Covid-19 has revealed that the health system is the foundation of all sustainable development.’ Hoinathy notices that ‘at the beginning, people thought it would be a Chinese problem, then a Western problem, but with the multiplication of cases, people understood that it is also a direct threat to them.’ He concludes that, ‘today the perception is rather that the virus hits all and everywhere.’ But people pay close attention to several hypotheses, including ‘that the virus might not be heat-resistant or that Africans, because of chronic consumption of antimalarial drugs, may be less vulnerable to the disease.’
The question of the consequences of the pandemic on the African continent are not easy to answer. Fears that the health system will be overwhelmed by a large number of sick people are justified. With mainly young populations, African countries might be less affected by this virus that is most threatening for the elderly – although other terrifying and deadly diseases like malaria still abound and they are not age-specific. Africa also has experience with pandemics for which there are no antidotes. Only six years ago, parts of West and Central Africa experienced the devastating consequences of the Ebola epidemic. Although, unlike Covid-19, that infection is limited to direct contact with body fluids, the disease leads to death in far greater numbers of those infected. People are proud that they have been able to defeat this ‘invisible enemy’, as the Sierra Leonean historian Sylvanus Spencer (2015) called it. The disease has not led to uncontrollable conflicts. People were slow to get used to the strict ban on contact, because above all mourning for the deceased and funeral rituals could not be carried out in the way people felt they had to be. But they finally changed and were able to defeat the disease.
However, this pandemic is different: Europeans, who until now have often considered themselves as transmitters of development and progress, now appear to be an openly visible threat to the countries of the South. However, I am touched by the sympathy I have received from friends who live in the remote crisis area in the Central African border region between Chad and Sudan – whom, otherwise, I’m often contacting about their conditions: ‘Take care of yourself’ and ‘Stay at home with your family’ are the messages I am receiving now.
Spencer, Sylvanus Nicholas, 2015, ‘Invisible enemy: translating Ebola prevention and control measures in Sierra Leone’, Working Papers of the Priority Programme Adaptation and Creativity in Africa(13). See also Paul Richards et al. https://eref.uni-bayreuth.de/53693/ and Richards (2016) Ebola: how a people’s science helped end an epidemic, https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/ebola/