The COVID-19 crisis is fast disrupting the colonial perspective that healthcare systems in Africa are the only ones always overwhelmed by outbreaks. COVID-19 has shown that austerity measures and lack of investment anywhere in the world cripple healthcare systems.
In many ways, the pandemic presents an opportunity for African peoples to see themselves differently, and the world to consider the African continent as a partner in finding solutions to complex problems such as COVID-19.
We are living a historical moment which could engender a sense of reawakening and assertiveness among Africans that could guide us through the difficult journey our ancestors started in the 20th century. Indeed, decolonisation may well be fast-tracked because of the threat of a pathogen.
For the 50 percent of the country that has no savings and lives paycheck to paycheck, or in small apartments with little food storage, or has to hustle every day to find work, this is simply impossible. People will be out every day, on the subways, at the gas stations, choosing between epidemiological prudence and economic survival, because they have no choice but to make that choice.
“Wash your hands” is good advice but also a poignant reminder that this is not the sort of problem that personal responsibility can solve. Epidemiology is a political problem.
Survivalism is so palpably desperate and elite-only that a pandemic also makes clear that we need the state if we are going to survive.
We live in an interwoven, interconnected world where an injury to one is truly an injury to all. We must confront the coronavirus with solidarity and fight for a society where the health of all is more important than profits for a few.
There’s a kind of power vacuum in the global development community today. There’s a sense of “leaderlessness and rudderlessness,”. So much attention has been placed on the West so far that it’s not even clear at this point what advocates are calling for when it comes to the poorest countries and most vulnerable people.
Then there’s the real potential of a recession, including a deep and sustained one. Budget pressures already exist in most major donor countries, as their populations age and pension and health care costs mount. A significant recession could further politicize foreign aid and reverse what has been a long-term positive trend over two decades.
For better or worse, global development work is synonymous with travel. There are field visits, missions, official delegations, conferences, and short- and long-term overseas consultancies. It’s not clear when travel — especially international travel — might become an option again. It could be months, and some say even longer, before travel habits return to normal. And they may never; reduced travel, especially with climate pressures and financial challenges in the wake of the pandemic, could become the new normal for aid work.
The COVID-19 crisis might not be just a temporary shock. Already it’s calling into question some of the core ideas that development strategies are based on.
Vietnam’s experience demonstrates how, by focusing on early risk assessment, effective communication and government-citizen cooperation, an under-resourced country with a precarious healthcare system can manage the pandemic. In facing an indefinite unknown, decisive leadership, accurate information and community solidarity empower people to protect themselves—and each other.
Vietnam’s response has earned a high level of trust among its citizens. About 62% of Vietnamese surveyed, in the single largest global public opinion study on COVID-19, think the Government is doing ‘right’, compared to the global average of around 40%.
The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other.
When the pandemic subsides, I suspect that we will have to discard simple dichotomies. The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other. Rather, there will be some high-performing autocracies, and some with disastrous outcomes. There will be a similar, though likely smaller, variance in outcomes among democracies. The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government.
In making that delegation of authority to the executive, trust is the single most important commodity that will determine the fate of a society. In a democracy no less than in a dictatorship, citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing.
The Black Death had become the model for “epidemics”, symbolising catastrophic mortality and the mass hysteria surrounding the outbreak of infection. By the 21st century, this escalated further in popular culture. The 2010 film Black Death depicts the culture of fear surrounding epidemics – suspicion, panic, violence – using the 1348 plague as a backdrop.
Despite infectious diseases ravaging society for centuries, the recollection of the Black Death remains at the forefront of our collective memory. After 800 years of enlightenment, medical advancement, antibiotics, vaccines and information, coronavirus has resurrected our dormant fear of the Black Death.
The global response to Sars-CoV-2 is the greatest science policy failure in a generation. The signals were clear. Hendra in 1994, Nipah in 1998, Sars in 2003, Mers in 2012 and Ebola in 2014; these major human epidemics were all caused by viruses that originated in animal hosts and crossed over into humans. Covid-19 is caused by a new variant of the same coronavirus that caused Sars.
The idea of the Anthropocene conjures notions of human omnipotence. But Covid-19 has revealed the astonishing fragility of our societies. It has exposed our inability to cooperate, to coordinate, and to act together. But perhaps we can’t control the natural world after all. Perhaps we are not quite as dominant as we once thought.
If Covid-19 eventually imbues human beings with some humility, it’s possible that we will, after all, be receptive to the lessons of this lethal pandemic. Or perhaps we will sink back into our culture of complacent exceptionalism and await the next plague that will surely arrive.
The pandemic lends a chaotic freedom to reality, and any attempt to capture it analytically is doomed to fail, because reality is always one step ahead of whatever we think or feel about it. To theorize or write about it is to lay our categories and our language on the edge of the abyss.
Intellectuals should fear this situation more than anybody else. As is the case with politicians, intellectuals in general are no longer the mediators between ideologies and the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens.
The time of vanguard intellectuals is over. Intellectuals must see themselves as rearguard intellectuals, must heed the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens and find out how to use that as a foundation for their theories. Otherwise, citizens will be defenseless before those who alone can speak their language and understand their deep concerns.
An advantage of quarantine is that it can be used to think afresh. Clearing the mind of clutter and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand. For those of us who are not serving on the front line, this should be enough for the duration.
If the limits of growth are eventually accepted, it will be because governments make the protection of their citizens their most important objective. Whether democratic or authoritarian, states that do not meet this Hobbesian test will fail.
Global problems do not always have global solutions. Geopolitical divisions preclude anything like world government. If one existed, existing states would compete to control it. The belief that this crisis can be solved by an unprecedented outbreak of international cooperation is magical thinking in its purest form.
Tackling a social calamity is not like fighting a war which works best when a leader can use top-down power to order everyone to do what the leader wants — with no need for consultation. In contrast, what is needed for dealing with a social calamity is participatory governance and alert public discussion.