July 4, 2020
COVID-19 updates: social distancing and "flatten the curve" - Africa can do it

From the article: "There is an old and tired argument that goes like this: Africa cannot do this or that compared to Europe, North America and, in some cases, even Asia and Latin America; it is too poor to afford such and such; or too social. At its core is the pathologising of Africans.

Critical scholars of Africa have been spending considerable time and energy over the years to provide a counterargument. Yet the tiring argumentation continues unabated. This time around it has found a budding niche on debates on how to respond to the deadly corona virus and its ongoing attendant global COVID-19 pandemic.

In a well-intentioned article aptly titled Why a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences, for instance, Alex Broadbent and Benjamin Smart from the University of Johannesburg argue that there is lack of contextualization. "Nor", they elaborate, "is there discussion of how the major differences between Africa and America, Europe and Asia might matter". Yet they look to the history or Europe, rather than Africa, to build their case, as if this is the first time Africans are dealing with pandemics.

They recall that in "the bubonic plague, the aristocracy left London for the countryside; the poor of London could not isolate themselves, and so they died". And then they assert that "this may be our situation" in reference to Africa.

There is no effort to explain how Africa also dealt with the bubonic plague and subsequent plagues. In his Reflections on plague in African history (14th–19th c.), for example, Gérard Chouin highlights measures that ranged from abandonment of large areas to resettlement in small areas to contain contamination. "In West Africa", he observes, "a classic response to lethal epidemics during later periods was to abandon existing settlements for small, dispersed hamlets located on farmlands".

It is this history that makes one wonders why some measures are seen as impractical in Africa. Broadbent and Smart continue:

Thus the major components of the recommended public health measures – social distancing and hygiene – are extremely difficult to implement effectively in much of Africa". For them, this would partly be the case because it is "fantastical to expect people who cannot afford food – as will soon be the case for many more – to practice personal hygiene.

In other words, the African poor cannot afford to be clean. Or as they put it: "You can’t eat soap. If you are starving, you won’t buy it". This does not pay attention to coping mechanisms, sharpened over the years of economic hardship, that Africans use to exercise agency. It also doesn't look at various public measures across the continent to make the washing of hands affordable and doable for the majority. ..."