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Is the worst yet to hit Africa or is the Continent about to survive the coarsest pandemic of our lifetime?


Impact of Coronavirus in Africa

Nearly each country in Africa has suffered one way or another from the novel Covid-19.  But the continent has not yet been impacted in the manner witnessed elsewhere. There were earlier warnings by the World Health Organization (WHO) that Africa could become the next Coronavirus epicenter. Equally, there were concerns over the continent’s capacity and preparedness to handle the pandemic. Such warnings and concerns notwithstanding, the situation in most of Africa has remained relatively manageable. Yet, it is too early to tell whether the continent has been speared. Even more puzzling is why Africa will (if it does) survive? In the meantime, there is a feeling, especially in the West, that the worst is yet to hit Africa and that when it finally does, the continent will have it rough to deal with the pandemic due to its well-known incapacities and levels of unpreparedness.

That a continent that is home to 17% of the global population has only recorded a mere 1% of Coronavirus cases is hugely puzzling. There have been a number of hypotheses as to why Africa has yet to be significantly affected. They range from its demographics, socio-cultural practices, infrastructure, its past experiences dealing with pandemics such as Ebola and so on. Some of the hypotheses on ‘why Africans aren’t dying yet’, are equally problematic in the sense that the authors feel the need to highlight some of Africa’s negatives as possible reasons for its survival thus far. Take for example, an argument that Coronavirus is not spreading as fast in Africa because the continent lacks transport infrastructure. On the face value, it looks just fine to make this argument. But it does have many significant problems. These kinds of narratives, while based on facts – because indeed Africa does not have robust transport infrastructure, like other parts of the world – do foreclose discourse on what various African nations could be doing differently that has prevented the spread of the virus. As a result Africa’s successes in the fight against Covid-19 are placed under a thick veil. Overplaying narratives such as Africa is being spared because it is lacking in infrastructure (or put bluntly because it is poor) not only sustains the old narrative about ‘nothing good’ can come out of Africa. It also deprives western authorities and publics an opportunity to learn from how the continent is tackling the spread of the virus. Indeed, a more balanced reporting about the status of Coronavirus on the continent is for the benefit of all. We really need to reach a level where we can learn to overcome the urge, however strong it is, to view Africa as a desperate case, always in need of help and one whose survival is through sheer luck or even ironically its deprivation.

Perplexity in the West

There has been a debate over the manner in which the West, particularly the section of its media, has continued to portray Africa as yet to be hit by the pandemic. Such narratives are not surprising, after all, there is a longstanding and well-established conception and sustained portrayal, by western media, of Africa both as a disease continent and pandemic predictions. This has been one of the reasons for the curious perplexity by a section of Western society over the situation in Africa, with the belief that the pandemic is yet to have its foothold on the continent remaining rampant. This debate is expected to be with us for a while. Especially because of racialization of disease that portrays Africa as the natural epicenter of diseases and pandemics. Quite to the contrary and against the ‘norm’ a section of African society views Covid-19 as a Whiteman’s disease. The fact that Coronavirus has failed to fit neatly in such stereotypical narratives which normalize association of disease and pandemics with Africa has since evoked a sense of ‘shock’ in the West and is seen to augment anti-colonial and anti-racial sentiments among African pundits and ‘netzens’. There is a feeling that a part of the Western society is waiting and even hoping for Africa to become the epicenter of the pandemic. That such has not been forthcoming is unsettling for that section of society with Africans vocalizing their displeasure over the same. Felwine Sarr’s widely reported assertion that ‘the Europeans are worried about us but over here we are worried about them’ is a case in point. We have equally seen a BBC piece entitled ‘Coronavirus: How will the developing world cope?’ eliciting fierce criticism from a section of Twitter users. In response to this, a leading Kenyan intellectual, twitted: ‘Don’t mind us. We will survive the way we survived you. It’s called resilience. Focus on your problems. White privilege is not going to help you.’ Against rampant western pessimism regarding Africa and Coronavirus, Nanjala Naybola has opined that ‘the continent is not waiting to be saved from Coronavirus’.

The Western media’s reporting on Covid-19 and Africa is indeed part of a wider discourse related to the West’s perceived general insensitivities in telling African stories. It is important to be acutely aware that these narratives are laced in painful histories, legacies of injustices and collective traumas. And that there can be many different reasons why anyone, whether African or otherwise, may want to engage in such discourse, particularly in pushing back. Some may want to do it because of their strong belief in a cause. Others may do it simply because it is romantic and/or politically correct. Whichever way one may want to view this, Coronavirus has rekindled a debate that will outlive the lifespan of the pandemic. Especially so, should Africa survive the worst impacts of Covid-19. 

Is the worst yet to hit Africa or is the Continent about to survive the coarsest pandemic of our lifetime? Is the worst yet to hit Africa or is the Continent about to survive the coarsest pandemic of our lifetime? Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 23, 2020 Rating: 5

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