Friday, May 08, 2020

COVID-19 and Colonialism

With no containment the coronavirus pandemic could kill between 83,000 and 190,000 people in Africa in the first year and infect between 29 million and 44 million during that period if it is not contained, the WHO has warned. 

Melinda Gates expressed her belief that she foresees bodies lying around in the street of African countries. While United States has surpassed Italy and the UK in terms of the number of dead from COVID-19 with reports of hospitals overwhelmed with patients and dead bodies left to decompose in homes and in trucks parked on the streets of the US  the billionaire philanthropist still chose to talk about dead bodies in Africa. Gates is not the only one to be predicting total doom in Africa. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in April stated: "Anywhere between 300,000 and 3.3 million African people could lose their lives as a direct result of COVID-19."

 To put this into perspective, based on the lowest projection from UNECA and at the present growth rate, African nations would need to see at least 7.6 million confirmed infections to be able to reach 300,000 deaths; 84 million people will have to be infected continent-wide for the UNECA projected 3.3 million deaths to happen. 

Many like Gates are assuming that the only reason African countries are reporting low rates of infection is due to its limited testing capacity. While this is not untrue for many countries, it excludes countries like Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Mauritius, and others which have ramped up their testing capability. If the low numbers are only a result of the lack of testing, African countries would be seeing increased rates of hospitalisations and even deaths, which has not been the case so far.

Predictions of mass deaths in Africa are problematic for reasons beyond inaccuracy. They assume that nothing that African countries do can mitigate the spread of the disease and prevent high death tolls. They presuppose that Africans will be just passive victims of yet another viral outbreak.
But many African countries have long experience in dealing with infectious diseases and by now have developed know-how that many Western countries might not have. And many Africans  are also not unaware of their fragile healthcare systems - unlike those in some Western nations are now just finding out.
African governments understand that their most effective strategy in the battle against COVID-19 is prevention and applying lessons learned from previous and/or ongoing outbreaks.
Uganda has already redirected its screening efforts and systems from combatting Ebola into its current interventions against COVID-19. Even before the country registered its first case, President Yoweri Museveni put in place travel restrictions and social distancing measures that advanced into full lockdown. Since the first case was announced on March 22, Uganda has seen a total of 100 cases, 55 recoveries, and no deaths. 
Rwanda was quick to react, too. Shortly after the outbreak was confirmed in January, the government organised a committee to evaluate and bolster preparedness and response to the pandemic and trained about 500 health workers, including laboratory technicians to cope with a potential national epidemic. 
Senegal is another example where local experts are leading the way in developing critical interventions during the pandemic. The West African country has used its experience in fighting HIV-AIDS and Ebola to create a $1 COVID-19 testing kit, a cost-effective and necessary resource it plans to share with other countries on the continent.
In Nigeria, drive-through COVID-19 testing has been deployed. People who suspect they may have the disease register online, are screened to ascertain whether they qualify for a test, drive through a testing centre, if they meet the parameters, and then receive their results electronically too. 
Mauritius has enforced a lockdown and rolled out mass testing, planning to have 100,000 people (roughly 10 percent of its population) tested in the span of two weeks. The island nation has established strong social welfare buffers and mobilised its healthcare facilities, which boast 3.4 hospital beds per 1,000 people - more than some Western nations have, including the UK, the US and Canada. 

Indeed, there surely will be some African countries where the COVID-19 outbreak will have a devastating impact. But painting with a wide brush a whole continent of 54 countries and dismissing efforts of African governments to deal with the situation is simply wrong. The view that all Africans think the same way and that all African countries will suffer the same fate is deeply rooted in colonial ideology, which dismisses an entire continent as inherently backward and dysfunctional. There is a time and place for every culture and country to be the expert, to be the frontrunner and African countries deserve to be perceived as autonomous, complex, and nuanced as every part of the world.

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