The New Idea of Africa in the Context of COVID-19

Photo: UN Photo/Albert González Farran
Photo: UN Photo/Albert González Farran

COVID-19 has created a global uncertainty: everyone everywhere is thinking about the possibilities of premature death. This uncertainty is upon all of us, but the African continent in particular, and the Global South in general, have been facing this uncertainty and this possibility of premature death for a very long time. Because of that, we will need to shift the geography of knowledge and even the biography of knowledge and begin to think about what is it that the Global South can offer us in dealing with this pandemic. What can we gain from indigenous African knowledges and epistemologies of the Global South? This argument arises because the Global South in general, and the African continent in particular, have some of the richest histories and experiences of dealing with epidemics and pandemics.

One of the issues that we need to address as we think of Africa and this moment of COVID-19 is: what is the crisis we are facing today? Is it enough to think about the moment brought about by COVID-19 as a mere health crisis? If it is more than a health crisis, is it not revealing a systemic crisis, perhaps even civilizational crisis? Can we use our everyday knowledge, as used during ‘normal’ times, to find solutions to this crisis?

In the context of COVID-19, the new idea of Africa is about the continent and its people able to take advantage of their history, their own knowledge and ideas to confront pressing problems @sjndlovugatshen

We need to think about endogenous knowledges, indigenous knowledges, theory from the south, southern theory, and epistemologies from the south so to speak, as we seek solutions to the current problems. I am informed in this thinking by the works of people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who in Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing introduced what he termed riches of poor theory, and a need to think and theorise from the realities of the poor. He justified this call by saying the poor, here, means being extremely creative and experimental in order to survive. Today, the whole world is at that crossroads, where to be creative and experimental are necessary to survive.

In the context of COVID-19, the new idea of Africa is about the continent and its people being able to take advantage of their history, their own knowledge and ideas, in order to confront pressing problems. I am not alone in this argument: a number of African scholars are coming to the fore with arguments that perhaps Africa and the Global South need not look to the Global North for solutions to this crisis. In fact, it is the Global North that needs to learn from the Global South. This argument was presented by the Liberian scholar Robtel Pailey, based at the London School of Economics (LSE), who argued that there are many lessons that the rest of the world can learn from Africa. She gives the example of her own country of origin, Liberia, which experienced 14 years of war, which was then followed by the outbreak of Ebola from 2014-2016, which killed approximately 4800 people. She argues that during that crisis Liberians improvised, even on protective equipment, demonstrating the practicality of the argument that necessity is always the mother or father of all invention.

I would also like to share reflections of the African intellectuals, who wrote a letter to the African leaders on 17th of April 2020, also making the argument that there must be a new idea of Africa – that African leaders must undertake radical change in the context of the crisis. They, like other thinkers, who are saying Africa needs to rely more on its histories, on its experiences and on its knowledges, argue ‘…yet as a continent that is familiar with pandemic outbreaks Africa has a head start in the management of large scale health crises.’ They proceeded to make a call to ‘…urge African leaders to also think beyond the current crisis as a symptom of deep structural problems Africa has to confront if it is to become one day sovereign and an actor that contributes to the new global order.’

There are a number of empirical events that show Africa using its own knowledge, its own histories and its own experiences to deal with COVID-19. A case in point is the establishment of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa-CDC), which are institutions borne out of experiences of the Ebola epidemic in West and Central Africa. And today it is these institutions that are giving pan-African guidelines for States on how to deal with COVID-19, working closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is a moment when we need to document how the African states, the African people and the African leaders have actually shown creativity and leadership in dealing with this particular pandemic. In addition, there is the example from Ghana, where the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the Incas Diagnostics and the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research (KCCR) developed a rapid diagnostic test which uses a simple finger prick to detect COVID-19 and give results within 48 hours. In Senegal, they have also managed to develop rapid testing instruments that helped them to deal effectively with the COVID-19 cases. And the one controversy, very popular nowadays, is Madagascar, where the Madagascar Institute of Applied Research, working with some scientists, developed what is called covid organics herbal remedy, harnessing available herbal and indigenous knowledges in that country. My reflections on the Madagascar case has nothing to do with the contestations on whether it has been tested or not, but I think it reveals that with political will, with commitment, we can actually rely on some of the resources that are within our reach to deal with current problems.

The COVID-19 moment is pushing us away from the economies of profit for the sake of profit, to the economies of care @sjndlovugatshen

The way that Africa has actually fared better than other parts of the world in dealing with COVID-19 has led some other people to insist that we are yet to see dead bodies on the streets of Africa. I do not think that will happen. The issue here is that we need to provide a thorough empirical analysis of what Africans did in responding to COVID-19. Moreover, there is even an emerging consensus at a world scale that the Global North did not deal with COVID-19 as effectively as the Global South. This is why one finds The Washington Post on 16th May 2020 urging the northern developed countries to learn from the small states in the Global South on how to handle COVID-19 better.

But for Africa to effectively gain leverage with its histories, knowledges and experiences, it is also important for us to reflect on the issue of the damages done by the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal prescriptions of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on the social policies including healthy systems. This experience necessitates a call for de-corporatisation. One of the major problems of corporatisation, and the logics of rule by market has been the de-escalation of investment in the social sector, leading to weak healthcare systems. We need to take that seriously, and move away from the economies of profit for the sake of profit, to the economies of care. The COVID-19 moment is actually pushing all of us in that direction.

I would conclude by calling for an imaginative way of thinking about a post-COVID-19 world order predicated on embracing the idea of all of us as survivors of the pandemic, so as to project and exhibit what I would call the survivor’s consciousness. If weadopted a survivor’s consciousness, it must actually be a we consciousness rather than of an I consciousness. The COVID-19 pandemic invites us to go back to the ethics of liberation, the recognition of humanity of everyone here on earth.

Professor Dr. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth.

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