While many parts of the world have gradually begun easing lockdown restrictions, there is a growing interest to better understand the impact of measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite numerous warnings of impending doom, the African continent has not witnessed the calamity of “biblical dimensions” that some had initially feared. This has given rise to doubts of the somewhat uncritical application of universal blueprints on social distancing and lockdowns without due consideration to the challenges posed by an informal economy and densely populated and intensely poor local settings. An effective quarantine requires major behavioural changes in the population, including sacrifices that are difficult if not impossible in many societies.
Is it possible to stay at home when one risks losing one’s daily wage? When one does not have any savings to tide over an extended period of unemployment? When health services are severely limited or may not exist at all? Recent media reports have warned of rising global food insecurity. The need to purchase food items daily becomes all the more important in the absence of a refrigerator at home. And hawkers and street vendors who operate in informal market settings risk losing their livelihoods.
The viability of enforcing social distancing measures effectively in areas with high population density has also been questioned due to poverty and low standards of housing. Similarly, the advice of regular hand washing is more difficult to implement than it appears in the absence of regular water supply or the mechanisms for water distribution in communities that make it impossible to observe social distancing requirements.
In a recent piece, the Nairobi-based writer Nanjala Nyabola aptly described the frustration of many African citizens: “Africa is spoken for and spoken about, but so rarely allowed to speak, and this allows only a handful of narratives to survive”. Expressions of dissatisfaction with western remedies that are uncritically applied in local settings have been growing in the past few years. Covid-19 has provided African leaders an opportunity to join scholars, activists and journalists in challenging influential solutions advocated by the Global North in response to problems in for the Global South.
One particularly interesting development has been the efforts of President Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar to market Covid-Organics (CVO) – an organic herbal concoction – in the fight against Covid-19. Many African leaders have already ordered bulk samples of this remedy even as the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that without clinical trials and proper approvals, CVO may be dangerous. President Rajoelina has claimed that “If it were a European country which had discovered this remedy, would there be so many doubts.” The WHO has now called for clinical trials of CVO. We are all anxiously waiting for the results.