On March 5th 2020 South Africa announced its first case of the COVID-19, being the first African country to register the continent's presence on the dashboard of the global epidemic. Since then other African countries have made similar announcements of having one or many cases.
The latest of them is Rwanda; Africa’s topnotch of innovative governance. These different announcements usher in a great deal of fear in the already panicking population of the continent, as memories of past epidemics are still fresh. In the case of Rwanda and many other registered African countries, it comes as no surprise given the structure of their economies and their reliance on things like tourism. Most of those who visit Rwanda, for instance, come from Europe and other affected places.
In what seems to be these countries’ readiness to combat the virus, they have, through their health ministries and agencies, established initial measures to observe. Most of these measures center around closure of places of worship and banning of other large gatherings. Tunisia, for instance, has suspended prayers in mosques, closes cafes at 4pm every day, and banned all cultural, sports and economic gatherings. Just like Tunisia’ Rwanda’s measures include postponement of large gatherings, working remotely for employees, and closure of schools and higher education, among others.
As far as proactive governance is concerned, these measures are applaudable. But while they are, isolationist measures such as social distancing, closure of higher institutions of learning, and remote working for working people are more dangerous than the virus itself. That is premised on the fact that affected African countries have little capacity to face the repercussions that comes with these measures and the amenities that must be provided to citizens when enforced.
Closure of higher institutions of learning, restriction on public transport, and similar measures as those of Rwanda’s Health ministry might work for countries like China, Italy, and other affected non-African countries. But that's because they have the context, readiness, and capacities for it. In Italy for instance, upon guaranteeing the entire country, the government delivered on it’s social contract by paying bills and mortgages for all it’s quarantined citizens until the virus is mitigated. In the case of China, the country has been feeding it’s entire quarantined population of Wuhan and other affected areas since the eruption of the virus. Added to these non-African governments’ efforts is the fact that most of their citizens are economically preeminent and self-sustaining.
The question for Rwanda and Africa is: who will feed and pay bills for a population of mostly unemployed people who live in informal settlements and below the poverty line? Who takes responsibilities for provision of amenities for citizens that would have otherwise been taken care of by themselves if they were not quarantined? And how long will these measures last given the eminent incapacities of our health systems?
It’s apparent that African leaders know this and have been so deliberate about their countries’ preparedness to fight the virus with robust health strategies. Just a few weeks ago, Rwanda’s Health Minister resigned her post for giving false information on the state of the country in expectation of the virus. Strategic preparedness as Rwanda has employed should be a concern not isolationist measures. Isolation means closed borders and public places, banned public gatherings regardless of their importance, and fewer tourist and economic activities. Given the challenge to national development and social mobility, it is apparent that this will raise social anxieties and economic hurdles.
The Coronavirus, unlike the Ebola virus in West Africa, is happening at a time when more people are socially aware and have access to information than they did a few years back. While the US, for instance, can afford to close its borders, African countries cannot. That’s because unlike African economies, America’s is large enough to deal with the shocks that come with isolation. As indicated earlier, the average citizen in Europe and the US are richer than the average African. Hence, while they can afford to stay home for weeks, average Africans can’t. Majority of Africans (Rwandans) are shop owners who have to work daily to provide for their families. So they can’t afford to stay home as the consequences might be grave. Rwanda and most African countries lack the capacity to do so. Such is in light of the fact that it requires technological infrastructures and financial capacity, which of these affected african countries cannot afford.
Social distancing could work for the West because of its aggressive individualism, but Africa thrives on the family, on communities and collective aspirations. The African, in spite of a dire situation, focuses on the wellbeing of the community more than the individual. Social distancing works in places where people already have a culture to distance themselves. Instead of telling people to distance themselves, we should focus on group sensitization and helping people to help their communities and families to understand how grave the situation is. If West Africa had resorted to “social distancing” in 2014, they could have lost more people to Ebola than they did. The increased death rate was not that people were close to each other from the beginning, it was the scarcity of information to prevent the spread of the virus and helping with basic hygiene necessities. With Corona, more people follow the news and are aware of what’s happening. Rwanda especially has a high level of trust in national government which will help in both its preparedness and fight against the virus.
In the case of Rwanda, Raising social anxiety could have dire economic consequences for the affected country. It will stop people from coming into the country and stall its tourism industry. This will affect local businesses and families that live off tourism. The country has already been through so much. Instead of increasing social anxiety, what if we have community centered messages to help people use basic hygiene routines to be safe? Given the cultural and social context of Africa, we need a collective solution. Any solution of prevention that focuses on the individual is a lack of context and might create more social harm than help people fight the virus. As much as we should be alarmed, the individualistic tendency of the West doesn’t fit in Africa’s family and social orientation, thus we must leverage that tendency to help our people be informed and safe together with their families and not separate or isolate them.
Musa AF Sherif and Ansumana Konneh study Global Challenges (Governance) at the African Leadership University-Rwanda