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Herd immunity in Africa: Elections amid a global pandemic

I briefly reflect on the African dimension of another equally controversial notion related to Covid-19 pandemic. Namely the idea of herd immunity. Recently there has been debate on herd immunity, particularly in the West. In the UK, Boris Johnson, for instance, touted herd immunity as a possible strategy in addressing the novel Coronavirus pandemic. It is a position that he seems to have vacated upon contracting and surviving Coronavirus himself. We have pockets of other countries, such as Belarus, that appear to have opted to take the herd immunity approach. Sweden has particularly been one of the most visible in Europe as far as the debate on herd immunity is concerned. Sweden’s stance has seen it grapple with challenges of death spikes in the recent past compared to its neighbors amid arguments that its approach might work, after all.  

Africa has not featured prominently in the global discourse on herd immunity. Perhaps, this has been overshadowed by the rather more prevalent debate on whether or not Africa will survive the pandemic if and when it finally hits the continent. While this is the case, there are a number of countries in Africa that seem to have opted for herd immunity in their approach to the management of Covid-19 pandemic. Whether this is deliberate or not is not my focus here.

One of the pointers to a possible herd immunity stance whether the authorities vocalize it or not, is the measures that they put and/or refuse to in place. Allowing people to go on with their lives without any strict restrictions, comes across as one of the ways you can tell that a country’s leadership is perhaps opting for herd immunity. We have seen a few countries in Africa opt against lockdowns, for instance. We have equally witnessed others even go on with socially intense activities. For example, there are, at least three African countries that have opted to proceed with electoral processes amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Benin just concluded holding its local elections. In Malawi, campaigns for a run-off following the nullification of the Presidential elections earlier in the year are on top gear. Burundi is equally deep into a hugely polarizing electoral process having had its public go to the polls on 20th of this month. Burundi has continued to downplay the impact of Covid-19. The government of Burundi has even controversially expelled WHO officials from the country and claimed that it would quarantine the East African Community (EAC) election observers. Such decisions coupled with the dangers of the pandemic, means little attention on the Burundi electoral process. This is withstanding the fact that last time Burundi held and election (2015), the country witnessed police unrest. Burundi’s decision to proceed with an election in the middle of a pandemic, scare away external observers and eject WHO officials, could be interpreted as government’s intention to cover up the actual Coronavirus situation in the country as well as conceal any electoral malpractices. As such, there can be more to the whole process. However, I narrowly focus on the matter of herd immunity as a possible path that countries like Burundi could be taking.    

Images from all the three countries reveal near nil social distance and/or any other measures of curbing the spread of Coronavirus as politicians continue to hold massive campaign rallies. There are certainly many more practices and examples from across the continent that point at a possible herd immunity approach to Covid-19. I have highlighted elections because of the sheer social intercourse that characterize such processes, particularly in Africa. Nic Cheeseman has particularly intellectually agonized over the dilemma of holding or not holding elections during the pandemic and has illustrated the trade-offs that there is between health and democracy. My argument is that lockdowns and social distancing measures are simply impossible to implement during electioneering processes. Yet those are the measures so far believed to be the most effective in curbing the spread of Coronavirus. As such, countries that have chosen to proceed with elections have, de facto, chosen to have people as much as possible move on with their normal lives amid a pandemic. Which then justifies the claim that they could be subscribing to a herd immunity school of thought, be it knowingly or otherwise.  

Herd immunity in Africa: Elections amid a global pandemic Herd immunity in Africa: Elections amid a global pandemic  Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 24, 2020 Rating: 5

1 comment:

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