To start talking about prevention on the African continent, we must state a fact that overlaps everything and anything that is discussed. The most basic preventive measure and what has become a real slogan before the pandemic, washing hands, is already a requirement that may sound absurd to the ears of most Africans, given that data from the United Nations and the African Union find that in sub-Saharan Africa (that is, below the border established by the Sahara Desert and which corresponds to 85% of the continent’s territory), 63% of the population have not access to tap water.
By: Wilson Honório da Silva, of the PSTU National Training Secretariat
That said, reading official press releases, mainly between February and mid-March, it is possible to find numerous diversified references to prevention measures proposed by different governments.
Around March 17, for example, Mauritania imposed a mandatory curfew and closed cafes and restaurants; Nigeria closed schools and imposed a limit on religious events; Egypt banned large concentrations in public spaces and closed all educational centers and South Africa began to create similar restrictions, mainly prohibiting crowding in bars and leisure places.
As from the 19th, many countries started to suspend cultural, sporting events or those gathering more than 100 people (including religious cults) and, a few, started to adopt policies of confinement of the population.
But even before the numbers started to soar daily, especially from the 20th, many experts also warned of the ineffectiveness or sheer formality of much of what was being done. Mainly because, at that time, most countries prioritized the closing of their borders (mainly international flights), based on the fact that about 80% of the confirmed cases were foreigners or people who had returned to the country.
As an example, on March 16, the South African government decreed the “State of Disaster”, determining that citizens of South Korea, countries in Europe and of USA would need to get visas to enter the country and canceled visas already granted to eight thousand travelers from China and Iran. In the same week, Algeria suspended sea and air routes with Europe; Morocco did the same with all international flights; while Liberia has banned visitors from countries where there are more than 200 cases of coronavirus, the same done by Kenya if there is at least one case.
The worst mistake and what explains the speedy spread of the disease is not adopting (in practically any country) distancing measures, social isolation or confinement. In this sense, the most serious and regrettable example is South Africa, which only took these measures on March 27, when the reported cases had reached one thousand.
The pandemic and the virus of Chinese capitalism in Africa
As can be seen today, the closure of borders, although necessary, did not prevent the virus from infecting. And, by the way, by being the only measure taken, it sent a completely wrong message to the African population: that the coronavirus was “their” thing, having nothing to do with Africa.
An idea reproduced to exhaustion on social networks and supported by “fake news” and unreasonable “theories”, such as that the virus would not resist African temperatures and climate. And, if that weren’t enough, it still ignited xenophobia, which is already a serious problem on the continent.
As is known, conservative governments around the world (Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s ahead) have also worked with the idea of the “foreign virus” or the “Chinese epidemic”, a racist nonsense to be rightly exposed.
However, in the case of the African continent, there is a particularity that requires us to speak of the role of the Chinese in the spread of the virus: the fact that the Asian country is today one of the main, if not the most important, economic partner of the African countries, mainly Angola, South Africa, South Sudan, Namibia, Kenya and Rwanda.
This was one of the factors that Bruce Basquet, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, highlighted when he referred (Science magazine, on March 15) to COVID-19 as a long-armed “time bomb” on African soil.
A thesis that had already been discussed a month earlier by epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, at Harvard University (USA), in an article in Nature, on February 13, that drew attention to the existing “possible transmission route” built “by the huge number of Chinese workers working in Africa and their travels between China and Africa,” remembering that most Chinese companies traditionally employ labor from the Asian country.
To get an idea of what we are talking about, according to a website dedicated to business in Africa with the significant name How we made in Africa, there were 10,000 Chinese companies in the continent in 2017 (90% of them of private capital, to the dismay of those who still believe in the litany of a “communist China”), with businesses in areas such as energy, civil construction, infrastructure, agribusiness, industry, commerce, services, and real estate.
And it is worth mentioning some examples to understand not only the dimension of the problem but also because the imperialism’s puppet governments in Africa did not even think about taking more serious measures in relation to this.
The mobile phones company Tecno (owned by China’s Transsion Holdings) controls 40% of the telephone market in East Africa. The Sunshine Group, based in Tanzania, does business across the continent, in areas such as heavy industry, agribusiness, and transportation. Star Times, which operates in the telecommunications field, is one of the main cable TV servers, with subsidiaries in thirty countries. Bobu Africa, on the other hand, is a tourism giant that specializes in “introducing African culture to Chinese tourists,” which are numbered in the hundreds of thousands each year.
Late and ultra-limited measures
Even when it was already evident that border closings and traffic restrictions were insufficient and cases of notification were already multiplying across the continent, there were many examples of irresponsible attitudes on the part of African governments. And one that best expresses how little Africans can expect from their governments is the infamous dictator Yoweri Museveno, who has presided over Uganda for 33 years, keeping the country (of almost 44 million inhabitants) plunged into a sea of corruption, poverty, and unemployment.
And in this case, by the way, the similarities with Bolsonaro are scary. Museveno is a member of a fundamentalist Christian organization (from the same branch of the Universal Kingdom of God, owned by the Brazilian Edir Macedo and, also, collateral of Israeli Zionism); in 2019, he defended the death penalty for LGBT people and keeps the country’s prisons filled with social and political activists.
So it is no coincidence that Uganda’s president is one of the most irresponsible speakers in relation to the pandemic among African countries. In an interview with the newspaper The Guardian, on March 20, when there were no notifications of contagion (now there are already 33 cases), Atel Kagirita, appointed by the president for the fight against COVID-19, declared that the virus “will not be a big problem … if we can effectively stop local transmission”, insinuating that the cases would remain restricted to those brought from abroad.
Faced with the inefficiency of governments, fake news proliferate
And it is worth remembering that, in today’s world, frivolous postures by the “authorities” always have a by-product that also turns into objective problems in facing the situation: the fake news. Just to give an example, which started in South Africa but has spread across the continent, the lack of initiatives on the part of the government has caused the population to start adopting completely ineffective measures in relation to prevention.
For example, WhatsApp broadcast lists were inundated with the most bizarre news, such as the one arguing that the virus is transmitted by beef, driving many to change their diet to be protected (which has skyrocketed fish consumption in many regions). Another “news” said that there was no need to worry because “a Palestinian scientist had already discovered the corona vaccine”. And one of the worst, shared by millions, presented an unusual healing recipe: “Corona can be cured by boiling eight tablespoons of garlic in six cups of water.”
As a result of fear and despair in the face of what was seen around the world, fake news cannot be seen as examples of “popular ignorance” or anything like that. They are unfortunate reflections of the inertia, not to mention complete levity, of governments like in Uganda, which is far from being an isolated case. And the worst is that levity and neglect with the people will probably continue even when treatment is necessary.
The worst is yet to come
In The Guardian March 20 interview, the top Ugandan official in charge of pandemic response was even more “optimistic” facing the outbreak, stating that the government “doesn’t envisage having many cases [needing critical care] because we are putting all our efforts on prevention.”
A statement that according to experts from the country itself is completely incompatible with reality, although Uganda, in fact, as Kagirita claimed, has experienced other epidemics. Ebola’s toll was 11 death and 28,000 infected in its last outbreak between 2014 and 2016.
Experience aside, Prof Pauline Byakika, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Makerere University College of Health Sciences, was emphatic: “once the [coronavirus] gets here, was going to spread very fast,” due to of what she calls the “social environment” in most homes, due to poor hygiene and ventilation conditions: “They are about five or six people in a house with one or two windows. Before you know it the whole household is going to be sick.”
Also ignoring this reality, Uganda’s Minister of Health, Janet Ruth Aceng, said she was confident with the possibility of addressing possible problems, stating that the country has “enough capacity beds, some ICU units and ventilation to handle a possible outbreak”. Another lie. It is unavoidable to know that the Ugandan government is relying primarily on the services of the National Reference Hospital in Mulago, which has 1,500 beds but only 60 ICU beds.
Uganda, unfortunately, is not an isolated case on the continent. Neither in relation to carelessness when there were still few notifications nor to how African governments are preparing to face the pandemic, now that its spread is unquestionable.
But the irresponsibility of local governments regarding the pandemic is far from being limited to what has (or has not) been done in recent weeks. The biggest problem is that Africans, as highlighted in the aforementioned Nature article, will face the pandemic with far more unfavorable conditions than the rest of the world, including Brazil.
Not because, as racists imply, “in Africa it is like that.” But simply because, as we have seen, the clutches of capitalism there have always been particularly sharp and perverse, leaving deep marks and open wounds on the continent. Something particularly visible is its health system.
And it is exactly these open wounds that make Africa an environment in which the coronavirus not only finds more favorable conditions to spread but also to cause more lethal and catastrophic effects.