Some of the restrictions that African governments imposed on their populations in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have most certainly changed many aspects of life.
However, as many governments have now started to gradually ease some of these measures, the question is which of these changes will remain with us and which will be reversed when COVID-19 has been brought under control.
The disease itself will surely go away some day, most likely through a vaccine, possibly also through herd immunity, when most people have been infected and recovered. But the efforts to control it now will leave all of us wondering which of the behaviors we have adopted against the disease will remain behind long after the coronavirus has receded.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 is here to stay for a very long time, not just in terms of its spread and threat to life, but mainly in terms of what impact it will leave on the social order as we knew it, on family life, on the way we work, the economy, the way we travel, how schools and universities will innovate new learning methods in the context of social distancing, etc.
People living in sub-Saharan Africa are still debating about what the real picture looks like with regards to Covid-19. Governments, health experts and laypersons alike insist that case numbers in Africa are still quite low, though no one can say with any measure of certainty why this is so. But this may have caused some people to start thinking that the worse is over or that Africa has been spared the ravages of the coronavirus disease. Some see it as vindication of the earlier speculations about the possible unique circumstances that favour Africa in terms of the spread and potency of the disease. But global public health experts and donor agencies, from the World Health Organizations to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the UK government and others insist that the main and logical reason for these low numbers in Africa is lack of adequate testing and reporting. So in reaction to the latter, many African governments have endeavored to increase their testing capacity, contact tracing and quarantining. But apart from the dearth of resources, shortage of equipment and personnel, what else is standing in the way of testing?
While the coverage efforts remain woefully inadequate, there is another layer of complexity of this issue in East African countries, and that is the disconnect between the value of testing for the disease and the popular perceptions about why testing is important. As a public health measure, testing is mainly aimed to identify individuals who may have been exposed but remain asymptomatic. If these individuals have actually been infected but have no signs of it, they become the perfect spreaders of the disease, so determining their status is a great measure of controlling the disease spread. This means that testing is only useful if it is combined with isolation while awaiting the test results. But there are many people who seem to think that a negative test result means one is immune to the disease. The obvious fact, that a negative test result today does not prevent one from contracting the disease the next day is not so obvious to some. And this simple difference has not been clearly communicated to the public, at least not in an accessible language. This means that the real value of testing is being watered down in many African contexts.
This really muddied the picture for the populace. At one point in South Sudan, the High-level Taskforce on Covid-19 got inundated with requests for testing by people trying to verify their status before they travel outside Juba. The Taskforce started issuing certificates of negativity for people whose reasons for travel, include taking the body of a relative who died of the disease in Juba for burial in the countryside. This became the quickest way the disease was able to spread outside the big city.
But the real danger in these certificates lie in the fact that those requesting and obtaining the tests would give their samples to be tested but go about their lives and interacting with others for days while waiting for the results, not considering the very obvious possibility that someone can give their sample today and then get infected shortly after. In other words, someone’s results could come back negative, but the person has already been infected during the time between the nose swab and when the results are announced. When they travel upcountry or to another town, they go and spread the virus while walking around with a certified negative status. This practice has been observed in Kenya as well.
In his address to the nation on July 6, 2020, President, Uhuru Kenya may have given a glimpse into how Kenyans and other East Africans will answer that question. He outlined Kenya’s strategy for the return to a degree of normalcy, following the ravages of the pandemic on the economy, on social life and on the livelihoods of Kenyans. The speech was received with a great applause all across East Africa and beyond. It was as if the region thought it will watch how Kenya’s reopening will pan out and then decide which of Kenya’s experiences could be adapted to other country’s reopening steps. After all, both Kenya’s economic weight in the region and what Kenya has achieved in her strides to be self-sufficient in the fight against Covid-19 allow other countries to follow in its footsteps without needing to reinvent the wheel or chart their own course, depending on the country’s successes or failures.
How much of Kenya’s strategy will look like a return to “normal”, how much of it will be a hybrid of the old and the new? How much of the Covid-19 style has become the new normal? For example, how sustainable is a partial reopening of the houses of worship? How practical is it to open up the economy but keep the schools closed? And what will it mean for families when parents need to return to work but school children stay home this year? What will childcare look like for one-parent households with limited means to hire caregivers?
Whatever happens, what will not change is that, like other crises that have come to the region before, someone will weaponise the measures to combat the pandemic against political opponents or in favor of allies. They will keep some of the restrictions in the fight against the disease to suppress certain voices and to magnify others, to swell someone’s pockets and impoverish someone else. This will not be the first time we see the functions and benefits of crises in favor of a few who are savvy enough to seize the moment. In this sense both the coronavirus and the measures against it will stay with us for a while.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.