National Solutions to a Global Challenge – Impressions from African Countries (Part 3)

Governments across Africa have taken measures to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The current flood of information is mainly dominated by official sources, media and expert opinions. But how do Africans see the current situation? What do they know about the coronavirus and how are their lives affected? As the KFIBS Africa Research Unit, we were curious to hear the personal stories. This series of blog entries presents answers from people from different countries to questions about personal changes in life, political reactions and their sources of information. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to these articles.

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Starting Point: Opinions from Our Contacts

When it comes to Africa, media coverage is often not particularly differentiated, or so-called experts are presented without questioning their expertise or self-interest. One such example is a German news site that recently interviewed the self-proclaimed philanthropist and billionaire Bill Gates on the subject of COVID-19 and its effects on the African continent. Even though he founded the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” with, amongst others, the aim to improve healthcare globally, it is questionable whether he can be considered an expert in virology or an expert on health issues for an entire continent. The same news report did not feature any policy-maker or scientist from the African continent. For this series of blog articles, however, we wanted to talk with people from African countries and not about them. We did not speak to politicians, but we talked to acquaintances and friends. And as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in her famous TED talk, it is not possible to generalise from one lived experience, but it is important to broaden the external view on the African continent and its people. In the following, we want to present the impressions and opinions regarding the political measures taken in the respective countries.

Public Support for Taking Action

Many African countries have taken much more decisive action against coronavirus than other states. Some reasons may be that a few countries are already Ebola-experienced (and therefore know how to deal with viruses) and in addition had enough time to act before COVID-19 reached the continent. At the same time, not all countries reacted in the same way and some countries barely took any action, such as Tanzania. From South Africa, Kamvelihle Mapundu, Mokgeseng Ramaisa and Percival Quina all agreed that the government acted swiftly: Awareness campaigns were launched and borders were closed, and South Africa went under a strict national lockdown (a curfew was implemented, shops and schools were closed), which was partly lifted already in May 2020. In Ethiopia, according to Nolawit Teshome, the government declared a state of emergency: Schools, universities as well as public transportation were closed. Mildred J. Johnson reported similar restrictions for Namibia: Schools were closed slightly earlier, but essential shops remained open under Phase-1 (strict measures under the state of emergency) of the lockdown. At the moment, there is no curfew in Namibia. But social contact is limited and the number of passengers using public transport restricted. Under Phase-1 long-distance travel, for example, was completely forbidden. But this has been relaxed under Phase-2 (the current state). In Benin, there are also regulations on travel and movement, as Michel Agodji let us know. There are local isolations of districts with infected people. Some governments have set up support programmes. In South Africa, for instance, the government has taken measures to support businesses and poor people during the lockdown. From Rosalie Zobo we know about governmental measures in Senegal to support citizens by helping them with their water and electricity bills. Even though many states reacted quickly, they reacted in different ways. What we also observed in our small sample, however, was (as in many other countries around the globe) a relatively high-level of agreement among our interview partners with the measures taken by their governments. Michel thinks that the government has done a good job, even if he initially feared that the measures would not be taken seriously. And Mwansa Mungela also thinks that Zambia tried to protect the people despite the economic challenges for many families.

Porträt Mwansa Mungela, Zambia
Mwansa Mungela, Zambia

“The government response has been multi-sectoral and anchored on ensuring that lives are protected but that the economy also continues to run because most of the Zambian population depends on daily wages for household sustenance.”

Hastings Sichone remarks that it was difficult for governments to react to COVID-19. Percival pointed out the importance of leadership in these times. A question which is worth studying in the future.

Worries About What Is Yet to Come

Nevertheless, our interview partners also raised some critical points: Felix Chabala was not too content with the Zambian government’s actions. According to him, officials underestimated the pandemic and did not implement a sufficiently strict lockdown. Nolawit would like to see stricter law enforcement in Ethiopia. Kamvelihle criticised that despite their lack of training in civilian operations, the military was involved in controlling the curfew in South Africa.

“Which I guess is to be expected when you get soldiers involved in civil matters. They handle people with brute force.”

(Kamvelihle Mapundu, South Africa)

On economic issues, Kamvelihle is worried about the economic consequences and the perpetuation of dependence on the so-called Global North, the IMF and the World Bank. Not only on a global scale, but also on national levels the economy is severely affected. We have heard that public food distributions would be helpful in Senegal, since the income of many people has plummeted due to curfews and lockdown. South Africa and Namibia are already distributing food, for which one has to queue for a long time in some cases. And for many people it is almost impossible to follow the rules.

Porträt Mildred J. Johnson, Namibia
Mildred J. Johnson, Namibia

“But some things don’t work in the African context, for example, social distancing poses a challenge for people who live in informal settlements.”

 

Especially for the youth and people working in the informal sector, the measures to control COVID-19 could have severe effects. Rosalie fears political unrest as consequences, so governments have already to consider strategies to end the lockdown. As a result, we found out that these possible strategies are controversial at the same time, since the reopening of some economic sectors, and especially religious gatherings, could increase the spread of COVID-19 again.

Porträt Felix Chabala, Zambia
Felix Chabala, Zambia

The churches are opened up as long as social distancing is observed. This is not good because a lot of people will misinterpret that and just behave normally again.”

 

The Take-Home Message from This Little Sample

As we can see, not all African countries reacted in the same way. At the same time, some challenges are the same as for European countries: What is the right balance between lockdowns and gradual liberalization? How to deal with distance working and working from home? What about religious services during the coronavirus pandemic? What would be the consequences of COVID-19 on an economic and a political level?

Yes, it is true, Africa is different from Europe. At the same time yet, African countries differ amongst themselves, and sometimes Europe and Africa have the same questions, but not necessarily the same answers.

 

Porträt Sandra M. Dürr
Sandra M. Dürr (lead author)

This article was written by Sandra M. Dürr with the active support of Lennart P. Groscurth, Verena G. Himmelreich and Miriam Kalkum.

Porträt Lennart P. Groscurth
Lennart P. Groscurth
Porträt Verena G. Himmelreich
Verena G. Himmelreich
Porträt Miriam Kalkum
Miriam Kalkum

 

(Hinweis: Der vorliegende Blog-Beitrag gibt nicht zwingend die Meinung des KFIBS e. V. wieder.)

(Bildnachweis für Beitragsbild: Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

COVID-19 on the African Continent – Voices from Abroad: “How did my world change due to Corona?” (Part 2)

Governments across Africa have taken measures to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The current flood of information is mainly dominated by official sources, media and expert opinions. But how do Africans see the current situation? What do they know about the coronavirus and how are their lives affected? As the KFIBS Africa Research Unit, we were curious to hear the personal stories. This series of blog entries presents answers from people from different countries to questions about personal changes in life, political reactions and their sources of information. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to these articles.

* * *

The Poorest Are Hit Hardest

In many African countries, drastic measures have been taken that influence people’s lives a lot. Even in countries which are not officially on lockdown the population is advised to practice social distancing, reduce their movement to a minimum and only do the most necessary things. But not everyone is able to implement this, as Mildred Johnson from Namibia told us:

Porträt Mildred Johnson
Mildred Johnson, Namibia

Very low-income earners and self-employed people are hit hardest, because they depend on customers to earn a living. For example, street vendors and open market operators in particular struggle now that their source of income has been taken away from them as a result of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.”

The lack of financial reserves among households is one of the main reasons why many governments refrained from ordering complete isolation or tried to mitigate the devastating effects for day labourers with free food supplies from the government, as for example in Senegal. In South Africa, hard initial rules were withdrawn for similar reasons. However, the economic consequences are not the only problem faced by many people in the closure, making it difficult for them to comply with the recommended measures: “For people living in informal settlements, it is a challenge to distance themselves socially. Depending on the house structure, accommodation can be uncomfortable because the corrugated iron gets very hot during the day. They cannot stay inside under such conditions”, Mildred reports.

Porträt Rosalie Zobo
Rosalie Zobo, Senegal

“We do not know how long the situation will last, so it’s difficult to plan spending. In many African countries, unemployment is high and the informal sector occupies a large share of the labour market. As a result, the political decision on confinement and curfews have deprived many households of their income and generated domestic violence. There is a risk of public disorder, especially among the most disadvantaged people, who find themselves in a dilemma between starvation and death by corona.”

Social Distancing and Working from Home

These problems, which make it almost impossible for many people to live in a lockdown for more than a few days, seem to be the main reasons why several African governments have already announced a relaxation of the rules. Nevertheless, social distancing is still advisable for those who can afford it. But staying at home is not without its pitfalls. Mildred herself, who works as an educator, currently lives with her little niece and nephew who require home schooling (home education). Sometimes she finds it difficult to concentrate on work. Like her, Mwansa Mungela from Zambia is also currently working from home. However, he has already noticed how quickly his Internet data bundles are being used up by several online meetings and other joint efforts. These are additional costs not covered by most employers. Although the network is well developed, power failures are commonplace for many people. A problem which many of our contacts have to face. However, Mwansa does not see the new situation purely negative:

Porträt Mwansa Mungela
Mwansa Mungela, Zambia

“My daily routine of catching a bus to work very early in the morning is now suspended and I do not worry about beating the morning traffic. I therefore stay longer in bed and eat more food than I have always done. Since I am usually not very physically tired by the end of every day of working from home, I have adopted the habit of jogging or cycling every evening.”

The New Daily Routine

Yet not everyone can work from home. For example, Deodatha Agricola from Tanzania still goes to work every day. In Tanzania there is no official lockdown but people are taking extra caution. Daily income activities are still possible, but the Tanzanian government advises to voluntarily slow down the movement, avoiding large crowds and limiting their time in public places as much as possible.

Porträt Deodatha Agricola
Deodatha Agricola, Tanzania

“If you go and work as normal you have to be very careful and wash your hands, sanitize as much as you can and now we also wear masks. In the beginning, some people were still ignoring because there was this notion that it is a disease of people who travel by planes. Now it has come to their senses that even people who travel in normal public transport like the Daladalas (minibuses) can get infected and that it is not connected to your job but transmitted through all human contacts and even within families. This makes people more careful. And people now know how to wash hands: Everywhere in front of shops there is a buck of water with soap and hand sanitizer, and people are doing and practicing how they are told.”

Also from other countries we were told that many take the warnings and recommendations seriously. Since face masks are often expensive, some of our interview partners told us that many people currently sew masks themselves. Among other things, colourful local fabrics such as kangas and chitenges are used.

Porträt Helen Gondwe
Helen Gondwe made her own mask from traditional fabrics (Zambia).

People Should Take It More Seriously

Not everyone is aware of the situation yet and not everyone is already provided with breathing protection: Nolawit Teshome from Ethiopia wishes, just like Mildred, that her fellow human beings would adhere more to social distancing and wear face masks. Nolawit reports that her residential area in Addis Ababa is (still) very crowded and almost all shops are open, which is why she and her husband are currently refraining from going for walks with their daughter. And when they go out, they only do so with a mask and hand disinfectant in their luggage. Like Nolawit, many are worried about their relatives, especially those who belong to risk groups. The news about so many deaths in the so-called Global North is a cause of great concern to many. Nolawit says: “I am now gradually realizing that I can only do what I can and leave the rest to God.”

The Bright Side of Corona

Some of our interview partners told us that the increased time at home can bring the families closer together again, as people now spend more time at home. They finally find the peace to exchange and understand what is happening in the lives of others. However, people outside of their own household are also interested in each other: Mildred observes a great solidarity among the people in Namibia. She tells us that many individuals and businesses are donating food and sanitizers to the needy. In many places, masks are being sewn and distributed, especially to those who otherwise could not afford any.

“There are other things that now have a different significance in life. You are happy for your own health and for what you have.”

(Hastings Sichone, Zambia)

And one learns to appreciate new things like Deodatha who can enjoy riding in Daladalas for the first time because now traffic is calm and there is plenty of space in the minibuses; or Mwansa who is glad that he is no longer stuck in the morning traffic and therefore can sleep a little bit longer.

Porträt Miriam Kalkum
Miriam Kalkum (lead author)

This article was written by Miriam Kalkum with the active support of Lennart P. Groscurth, Verena G. Himmelreich and Sandra M. Dürr.

 

Porträt Lennart P. Groscurth
Lennart P. Groscurth
Porträt Verena G. Himmelreich
Verena G. Himmelreich
Porträt Sandra M. Dürr
Sandra M. Dürr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Hinweis: Der vorliegende Blog-Beitrag gibt nicht zwingend die Meinung des KFIBS e. V. wieder.)

(Bildnachweis für Bild mit den selbst genähten Chitenge-Masken aus Sambia: Fotobestand der KFIBS-Forschungsgruppe „Afrika“)

(Bildnachweis für Beitragsbild: Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

COVID-19 on the African Continent – Voices from Abroad

Porträt Miriam Kalkum
Miriam Kalkum
Porträt Sandra M. Dürr
Sandra M. Dürr
Porträt Verena G. Himmelreich
Verena G. Himmelreich
Porträt Lennart P. Groscurth
Lennart P. Groscurth

Governments across Africa have taken measures to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The current flood of information is mainly dominated by official sources, media and expert opinions. But how do Africans see the current situation? What do they know about the coronavirus and how are their lives affected? As the KFIBS Africa Research Unit, we were curious to hear the personal stories. This series of blog entries presents answers from people from different countries to questions about personal changes in life, political reactions and their sources of information. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to these articles.

* * *

“The coronavirus is sweeping over mankind.” This is the beginning of a song that was released on 25 March 2020 by the Ugandan musician and politician Bobi Wine. Under the hashtag #DontGoViral, the song which then went viral itself, calls on people not to take COVID-19 lightly. It raises awareness of the disease which, according to the African Union, has to date caused the death of about 2.290 people in Africa (as of 11 May 2020).

Compared to the coronavirus death toll in single European countries such as Germany (7.417), African countries have thus only been lightly touched by the disease so far. Common narratives dominated by official sources, media and expert opinions suggest that the worst for the continent is yet to come. Referring to weak health systems and insufficient capacities in hospitals, epidemiologists have raised concerns about African states’ ability to cope with the virus. In a broader sense, COVID-19 may also lead to food shortages in regions already affected by crisis or droughts. In East Africa, for example, livelihoods of millions of people are currently threatened by a severe locust invasion. Moreover, a lack of remittances due to the global economic recession could exacerbate pressure for the most vulnerable. By contrast, the relatively young population in Africa and the experience already gained from other epidemics such as Ebola could be assets in the fight against the spread of the disease.

With the containment measures, many people around the world are currently sharing the same experiences: The renunciation of cultural activities has become a necessity and the avoidance of personal contact with vulnerable family members a gesture of love. For some, working from home has become normal, whereas many have lost their jobs. In this sense, the current crisis could have some positive effects in bringing the world population closer together. At the same time, the coronavirus has also led to the closing of borders and to xenophobia, forcing people to leave their homes. Faced with this ambiguity, we were curious about the personal stories linked to the exceptional times we are witnessing.

As the KFIBS Africa Research Unit, we asked different people in various contexts how their lives have changed individually, how they perceive the respective national measures and through which media they receive their information and updates. We were also interested in what way the coronavirus affects women and men differently. Besides revealing interesting insights into different perspectives, the project also gave us the very much appreciated opportunity to reconnect and exchange with acquaintances and friends. On this blog, we will present our findings in a series of articles, each with a different focus.

On behalf of KFIBS and all readers, we would like to thank all interview partners who shared their views and gave their consent to publish this blog. Thank you very much for your time and openness!

Among others, the following persons were involved: Mokgeseng Ramaisa (from South Africa), Kamvelihle Mapundo (from South Africa), Percival Quina (queer man from South Africa and graduate in “International Relations”), Michel Agodji (research assistant from Benin), Mildred Johnson (researcher from Namibia), Nolawit Teshome (lady from Ethiopia), Felix Chabala (student from Zambia), Hastings Sichone (Zambian lawyer), Mwansa Mungela (international development practitioner from Zambia), Deodatha Agricola (environmental science and management officer from Tanzania, Rosalie Zobo (Ivorian political analyst living in Senegal) as well as Adnan Mohamed (Ghanaian migrant in Libya).

The above-mentioned personal descriptions in brackets were chosen by our interview partners themselves. Please note that all opinions expressed in this blog are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the majority or of the authors. Like ourselves, most of our interview partners enjoyed the privilege of higher education and therefore cannot be considered representative for regions or nations.

By Miriam Kalkum, Sandra M. Dürr, Verena G. Himmelreich and Lennart P. Groscurth

(Hinweis: Der vorliegende Blog-Beitrag gibt nicht zwingend die Meinung des KFIBS e. V. wieder.)

 

(Bildnachweis für Beitragsbild: Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

Ecuador: Between COVID-19 and a Deficient Political-Economic Structure

Porträt Anderson Argothy Almeida, PhD
Anderson Argothy Almeida, PhD
Porträt Jakob Schwörer
Jakob Schwörer

According to official data from worldometers.info – based on information from government institutions and daily reports released by local authorities – among all Southern American countries infection rate (per million inhabitants) is highest in Ecuador (as of April 26, 2020). In general, official numbers should be suspected especially because they strongly depend on the amount of conducted tests: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay carry out considerably fewer tests than Ecuador (in relation to population size). Yet data regarding the share of positive tested people on the total amount of the tested population suggests that infections are widespread in Ecuador compared to other Southern American countries but also in comparison to strongly affected countries, such as Italy and the US. An analysis conducted by the New York Times concludes that the death toll is 15 times higher than officially reported suggesting that Ecuador is suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the world. The spread of the coronavirus overloads public services and capacities of hospitals are exhausted, especially in the country’s largest city Guayaquil, where dead bodies are lining the streets. The country was on lockdown by the government on March 12. However, government officials recently decided to “relax” quarantine by May the 4th and get public life back on track despite the current dramatic situation. In what follows we offer a specific interpretation of the government’s decision to restart economic and social activity assuming that economic pressure groups have a particular strong effect on political decision-making in Ecuador.

A Brief Description of Ecuador’s Social and Economic Decline

Starting with the social and economic situation before the outbreak of the crisis, official data suggests a rather positive image at first glance: Regarding the official unemployment rate, this was below 5% in December 2019 according to data from INEC. Yet underemployment and inadequate employment (“overemployment”) increased near to 60% in the last three years: Six out of ten Ecuadorians either do not have enough work to earn a sufficient income or are not fully paid for the work they do. Accordingly, poverty is also an issue in Ecuador: If we take income as a yardstick, 25% of the population lives in poverty and 8.9% is extremely poor, which means that they live on less than 1.59 USD per day. Additionally, the government’s economic policy of structural adjustment – demanded by the International Monetary Fund in return for further credits – left more than 55.000 public sector workers unemployed and restricted public investment. Regarding the latter, the public health budget was reduced by 500 million USD within 2019. The real income of public workers has been reduced through extraordinary contributions. The salary of private workers also decreased due to new taxes and the rise of new on-demand applications, such as Uber and Netflix, pressuring competing “traditional” businesses to reduce salaries. Even private investments could not stimulate the economy since they often consist of sending profits to tax havens.

Dismissals, loss of income and precarious work led to less consumption by Ecuadorian families and an aggregate demand crisis affecting the macroeconomic stability of the country. The coronavirus pandemic caused further negative developments for the country: the appreciation of the dollar, which reduced competitiveness for Ecuadorian exports, the drop in the price of oil in February 2020 (the export of petroleum is still one of Ecuador’s most important source of income), the decrease in transfers of money from Ecuadorian citizens living abroad and the contraction of the world economy.

Business-Friendly Policies and Relaxing Lockdown Measures

Traditionally, the power and influence of large commercial groups (importers/exporters) and financiers is considered particularly strong in Ecuador. Respective trade associations, such as the chambers of commerce, usually attempt to influence policy and decision makers with varying success over the last decades. The current government seems to be particularly prone to collaborate with large business groups. Especially the current Minister of Economy, Richard Martinez, formerly president of the National Federation of Chambers of Industries, is seen as business-friendly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, political decision makers are accused by trade unions and the CONAIE federation of indigenous nations of protecting the large industrial and financial companies while neglecting the social sector. For example, this is illustrated by the fact that the government organised 324 million USD to pay obligations for debt bonds during the crisis instead of investing it in public health contradicting even recommendations formulated by international organisations, such as the World Bank.

Since mid-April 2020, the executive has submitted a bill named “humanitarian aid” to the National Assembly. Among others, it includes further reductions of the salary of public servants and – even more alarming from the perspective of the lower classes – the “flexibilisation” of labour allowing contracts of mutual agreement between employers and workers ignoring the statutory minimum wage. This measure might further precarise the conditions of workers due to a high demand for regular jobs in the country paving the way to a “race to the bottom”. Furthermore, on April 28, the Ministry of Labour published a resolution which does not consider COVID-19 as an occupational disease: Workers are now forced to work under any form of working conditions and can be dismissed in case of sick leave.

If we now take a closer look at the decision to allow economic and public life to resume from May 2020 onwards, despite the fact that Ecuador is affected by the coronavirus harder than most other countries, this can be interpreted as a reaction to increased pressure from powerful economic groups and a business-friendly orientation of the ruling politicians. Yet it is evident that the government itself has an interest in opening society in the face of decreasing tax revenue, the lowest level of international reserves since 2005 and the absence of financial support promised by international organisations (e.g. World Bank, International Monetary Fund). Thus the need to reactivate public life is obvious. But in the face of the current situation, it seems also a risky undertaking. Economies might recover but the victims of COVID-19 do not.

By Anderson Argothy Almeida, PhD and Jakob Schwörer

(Hinweis: Der vorliegende Blog-Beitrag gibt nicht zwingend die Meinung des KFIBS e. V. wieder.)

 

(Bildnachweis für Beitragsbild: Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash)