Coronavirus: What can Africa teach the West?

Nii Ntreh Mar 9, 2020 at 04:30pm

March 09, 2020 at 04:30 pm | News, Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

March 09, 2020 at 04:30 pm | News, Opinions & Features

Africa's recent history of battling the Ebola pandemic has prepared it for what the coronavirus threatens.

It is not exactly panic of epic proportions, but the world’s markets are responding to the threat of the coronavirus and as is the byproduct of turbulence, we are witnessing plunges.

On Sunday, it was reported that Goldman Sachs believes oil prices could drop as low as $20 per barrel if fears and infection rates of the coronavirus persist.

As of Monday morning, the Japanese Nikkei had fallen 5% even as markets in Asia failed to pick themselves from the ditches they fell into in the last few weeks.

Over 3,000 people have died of the coronavirus in China alone.

On the other side of the world in Europe and America, the story is no better. Futures are down in France, Germany, the UK as well as the US.

Italy has the worst death rate of the coronavirus apart from China, with 366 confirmed dead from over 6,000 reported cases mostly from northern Italy.

Steady hands are expected to beat things into stability. As investors pay close attention to what their monies make, they would have one eye on how governments handle what has become a global public health emergency.

Last week, US President Donald Trump constituted a coronavirus task force headed by Vice-President Mike Pence. This was not greeted with much enthusiasm, partially because Trump himself has sought to downplay the danger coronavirus poses to the American public.

In a phone conversation on Fox News with Sean Hannity, one of his biggest supporters in mainstream media, Trump bragged about his “hunch” that public education is exaggerating the threat posed by the coronavirus.

“You know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4% [fatality rate], which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1%. But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases. So I think that that number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1%.”

Trump has since told Americans it is okay to go to work when experts are warning such messages would be inimical to fighting the coronavirus. On Friday, Apple said its employees could work remotely.

Then there is Vice-President Pence and his less-than-stellar management record of disease outbreaks. When Pence was Indiana governor, he underestimated (some say, even refused to care about) the gravity of HIV/AIDS infection in the town of Austin.

Over 200 people were infected with the fatal disease through what was mostly needle-sharing by addicts in a town that had a separate public health problem of drug addiction.

As such, the two most powerful men expected to lead America in this crisis, come to the table with blighted moral records.

Such values as trust and cooperation are indispensable to the management of a problem like the coronavirus. As are the more tangible factors of healthcare costs, paid leave as well as disease testing and economics of cure.

Last week, one of the debates in the US, which would mesmerize outsiders, was whether a coronavirus vaccine should be free. This, as the world’s most powerful country readies itself for a disease that promises global disaster.

On top of a misplaced interest in reaping financial rewards amid a pandemic, the US also has to deal with how frailties within its political, security and economic frameworks have been exposed by panic over the flu-like ailment.

Paradoxically, the panic button is triggered by the intensity of public awareness creation and education.

America’s logistical and economic wherewithal notwithstanding, it may not be as prepared for the coronavirus as senior government health officials would allege.

Over in Italy, the coronavirus has created a scene rather plausibly akin to an image created by the 1992 dystopian thriller novel, Children of Men.

The 16 or so million people in Italy’s northern regions, where the disease is most prevalent, have been technically locked out from the rest of the country and Europe.

The government has also placed a ban on all public gatherings until April 3rd.

Italian soccer matches are now being played in empty stadiums. And in 27 different correctional facilities across the country, prisoners are resisting new measures they are told would save their lives.

The situations in the United States and Italy represent two of the characteristics we have come to hypothesize if the armageddon-like doom comes.

The fear and despair are slowly but surely creeping up on populations whose leaderships are deemed either inept or insensitive.

In all of this, possible coping mechanisms that could be taken from Africa are not taken simply because Africa is most often not one of the possible answers for those in the West.

The argument is not that Africa has answers to the pandemic. Indeed, when the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he is afraid of the coronavirus spilling over to countries with “weaker health systems”, Africa was on his mind.

But even though experts warn that every pandemic has a uniqueness we must respect, there is also the benefit of a recent experience that Africa has with perhaps, a deadlier disease.

The Ebola outbreaks over the last decade puts the continent in a position where the coronavirus does not carry a necessary element of surprise. Africans are not likely to underestimate what consequences the coronavirus has for the continent.

One of the lessons of Ebola is that the countries that were hit built systems and infrastructure during “quiet times”.

For instance, in Nigeria, where about 10 were killed before 2016, the country improved the capacity of its national reference laboratory, the federally-funded center that coordinated responses.

As things stand, the rapid response teams put in place after 2016 have served Nigeria well even as the country confirmed its second case of the coronavirus today.

The de-politicization of efforts in emergencies is another area Americans may want to learn from Africa. It sounds almost jejune to point this out to America, an epitome of the success of democratic institutionalism.

But when Trump blames the Obama administration for the shortage of test kits for coronavirus testing, one wonders whether the urgency lies with saving lives or scoring political points.

Communicating the risks of the coronavirus demands moral coherency and clarity. That means people have to believe their leadership and not led on the path of cynicism.

Argumentatively, African governments have not had historic problems of whipping their citizens inline – most often due to authoritarian tactics. We can identify the evil and still acknowledge the virtue of communalism.

With the threat we are facing, cooperation needs to be encouraged. There cannot be a place out of the bounds of gathering resources.

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