Jeffery Renard Allen
Art by Ashley Walters
Other images courtesy of the author.
“Breaking News: Burundi is the only African country without any case of coronavirus. When the Minister of Health was asked about the secret behind the zero case of COVID-19, this is what he had to say; “It is very simple. We don’t have the testing kits.”
—Post on Social Media
Johannesburg scares the shit out of me. Here, even my Chicago core feels intimidated, not quite up to the challenge in this city where safety is the first priority. Forever on guard. Driving down a major thoroughfare you grow tense when you see a road-sign warning about a high-crime hot-spot. Hope to make it through without getting jacked or smash-and-grabbed.
The entire city feels on lockdown. Nowhere else in the world where you’ll see as many properties shielded behind high walls topped by electrified wiring. And signs boasting of “armed response” from private security companies. A city of gated communities where you might pass through a “boom” gate to enter into a neighborhood, then another security gate to gain access to an apartment complex. You live behind bars, gates on windows and doors. Those who live in free-standing houses keep dogs and guns. You take every precaution.
For me that means avoiding Joburg proper and staying on the outskirts, mostly in the northern suburbs. In the city, you feel all eyes on you, a mark. I recall the afternoon I met some friends at the studio of a celebrated photographer on Constitution Hill. We had a great time. Good talk, good wine, good music. In a space made vibrant by cutting-edge photographs, paintings, and carvings. We stayed until the photographer closed up shop and secured his place for the night. Once outside, the photographer and my friends stood on the sidewalk and waited with me until my Uber arrived.
That’s Joburg, both the fear and the sense of connection, togetherness. What I love so much about this city, the edgy cosmopolitan vibe where you can do you in the company of the like-minded. Bungee jump in Soweto or meet friends for dinner and drinks in a trendy area like Maboneng, wine taste at the Butchery, browse bookshops, pop into a gallery or shop on Vilakazi Street, check out what the vendors are selling on the sidewalk. Hear some live music. All on the cheap.
These are among the many reasons why I have decided to leave America and make Joburg my home. Now there is this unexpected but additional benefit: observing from afar America’s misguided and doomed “re-opening,” I’m thankful to be here, in Joburg, thankful to be safe.
Given the shortages this side, in America, my plan was to buy hand sanitizer once I arrived that side, in Johannesburg, but I discovered that, six days after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Africa, no hand sanitizer was to be had, nor medical masks and gloves. It was Wednesday March 11, and the number of confirmed cases had increased to eight. Still, I felt little concern, focused instead on doing the things I needed to do, just another day, routine. Above all else—first things first—I needed a haircut, so I made my way to Fourways Mall, a ten-minute Uber ride from my apartment, found a barbershop, then slid into an empty chair at the direction of a slim man in his early thirties.
He draped an apron over me and secured it, asked me what I needed, and got to work, quick to make conversation over the low buzzing of his clipper. How was my day going? Where was I from?
During my many years of visiting the continent, my identity as an American often drew interesting responses. (During the Obama years, people on Zanzibar would chant the mantra, “Obama is good, Obama is fine.” Once in Nigeria, a man congratulated me.) The barber started praising Donald Trump, telling me that Trump is a great man doing great things for America, and speaking in a quick casual tone that assumed I agreed with these sentiments. I adjusted my body in the chair, causing it to swivel a bit. Changing the subject, I asked him where he was from—I couldn’t place his accent—how long he’d been living in South Africa, and how he liked it.
He told me he was from the Congo (DRC) and spoke about how tough life was back at home, war, no jobs, poverty, and how thankful he was to be living and working in South Africa—“a man should work hard and support his family”—even as he felt unwelcome.
“You know how it is when your brother doesn’t want you?”
I knew. I thought about an incident from a few months earlier. I’d had lunch (Japanese food) with a close friend, enjoying her company, our conversation continuing during our drive in her SUV to my apartment complex. She pulled up to the security gate and spoke in a local language to the middle-aged man inside the cubicle, only to have him answer her in English. She grew irritated. “That’s the thing about xenophobia,” she said.
That night, the electricity in my neighborhood went off in accordance with the “load-shedding” schedule meant to prevent long-term power outages across the country. The load-shedding plan loomed large in an ongoing corruption scandal. Eskom, the national power company, lacked the capital needed to make much-needed improvements to infrastructure since the previous administration had for a decade looted its revenues along with revenues from Telkom, the national telephone company.
The power would go off on five different occasions that first week in country, stirring up feelings of annoyance, frustration, anger—as one friend texted to me, “Welcome to our reality”—and disappointment. Mauritius and South Africa were the only two countries on the continent where I’d never had to put up with the usual commonplaces of underdevelopment. I sought out ways to overcome the limitations imposed on my daily schedule. Then, my seventh night in town, President Cyril Ramaphosa mandated that visitors from high-risk COVID-19 countries like myself had to report for testing. I was already scheduled to see my doctor later that week, so I waited out the three days to my appointment. I was welcomed into his office with a polite apology. We would not shake hands. I sat down at his desk. My doctor is a man of East Indian heritage, roughly my age, in his fifties, thoughtful and pleasant, and impressed by the fact that I’m a university professor. He checked my blood pressure. Not good. I’d been struggling to stay at safe levels, so he wrote a prescription for a new medication. He informed me that pharmaceutical companies often trial-tested new medications in South Africa that would later prove effective for African Americans given similarities in health conditions, a fact that would soon seem prophetic as the COVID crisis worsened in the US and black people started to die in high numbers.
As for my getting tested, he advised me not to. For starters, should the results come back positive my only option would be to self-isolate. More importantly, the country might need every test kit for the local population, no small matter. COVID-19 could devastate the country—a fear that I’d not heard voiced publicly—given that so much of the population suffered from chronic illnesses that would leave them vulnerable: obesity, diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension, and HIV and AIDS. To make matters worse, residents in the villages have limited access to health care.
“Remember, you’re in Johannesburg,” he said, “which takes on the appearance of a First World country. But it’s nothing like many other parts of the country. The Third World.”
“A day or two later, I received word that the pastor had fallen gravely ill from a chronic heart ailment. At her funeral, I spoke to a doctor-in-training who’d visited her in the hospital. Her breathing was labored, she gasped for air and needed to be put on oxygen, but the hospital only had three oxygen tanks, each already in use. Hoping to alleviate her suffering, the nurses improvised a futile remedy. They leaned over the pastor at her bedside and fanned air into her face.”
I like to get up early, 4 or 5 in the morning, make a pot of coffee, then start writing, my decades-long daily routine, but in response to the looming threat, I fell into the habit of also monitoring the news for a few hours each morning, a practice I usually avoid. I’d been in the country for less than two weeks when I came across a story that I took as a foretelling of things to come.
On March 24, Tawanda Makamba spoke to the Daily News Zimbabwe about the death of his thirty-year-old brother, journalist Zororo, at Wilkins Hospital in Harare the day before. In February, Zororo had gone on a twenty-day holiday to New York, returned to Harare on March 9, become sick three days later, only to have his general practitioner misdiagnose his symptoms as the common flu. “He was . . . told that he had a cough and a flu because in New York it’s cold and here it’s hot.” His health quickly deteriorated. “His doctor made it clear . . . that he had to be on a ventilator because he could not breathe. However, when we got at Wilkins Hospital there was no ventilator, no medication and even the oxygen they had to get it from the City of Harare.” Sad but unsurprising facts. For decades, the health system in Zimbabwe has been in decline like everything else in the country. Public hospitals often lack basics like running water and pain killers. Doctors wash and reuse bandages. When doctors and nurses strike for better wages, the government responds by firing them for violating their duties as civil servants. Given the scarcity of resources and professionals, Zimbabweans often travel to South Africa for medical treatment when they can.
The Makamba family managed to get a portable ventilator and medicine from South Africa. However, when they brought the ventilator to the hospital, “because the ventilator had an American plug, they told us to get an adapter . . . I then rushed to buy an adapter and came back . . . [but] they said they had no sockets in the room.” Compounding this absurdity, “I told them that I had an extension cord and pleaded with them to use the cord, but they refused.”
At some point, Health Minister Obadiah Moyo suggested Zororo be taken to the Borrowdale Trauma Centre, only for the owner of the center to call Tawanda. “[H]e told me that he could come and set up an ICU at Wilkins . . . complete with a ventilator and monitors, but he said that we had to pay US $120,000 . . . He added that once Zororo finishes using the equipment . . . we had to donate the equipment to Wilkins Hospital . . . [to] the government.”
Lacking money, the family could not agree to these terms. So Zororo remained put and suffered. “We had to phone from home, calling the nurse station to tell them that Zororo was in distress and that his oxygen was finished because they were not going to check on him. It even got to a point where they were telling us that we were bothering them.” The doctor would turn off his phone.
“At the end before he died, he kept telling us that he was alone and scared and the staff was refusing to help him to a point where he got up and tried to walk out and they were trying to restrain him.”
See similar tragedies, injustices, playing out each day across the African continent. Here is another.
Seven years ago, on the island of Zanzibar, I was visited one afternoon by a group of women, including a heavy-set pastor in her forties. A day or two later, I received word that the pastor had fallen gravely ill from a chronic heart ailment and had to be admitted to a public hospital. She died only five days after I’d seen her. At her funeral, I spoke to a doctor-in-training who’d visited her in the hospital. Her breathing was labored, she gasped for air and needed to be put on oxygen, but the hospital only had three oxygen tanks, each already in use. Hoping to alleviate her suffering, the nurses improvised a futile remedy. They leaned over the pastor at her bedside and fanned air into her face.
Across the continent, African lives don’t matter. Africans suffer. Africans die.
The dizzying facts: in 2015, around 1.6 million Africans died of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-related illnesses, diseases that can be prevented or treated with proper access to medicines, vaccines, and other health services. However, less than 2 percent of drugs consumed in Africa are produced on the continent, making many people susceptible to the three big killer diseases. Africa accounts for 17 percent of the global population but half of the children in the world under five years of age who die of pneumonia, diarrhea, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and measles. Since the beginning of last year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen the world’s largest and most deadly outbreak of measles. And then there are the classic diseases that claim many. The world’s most recent outbreaks of the plague were in Madagascar.
Of the 20 countries worldwide with the highest maternal mortality rate, 19 are in Africa; the continent also has the highest neonatal death rate in the world. In addition, most people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without access to basic sanitation: only 58 percent of people have access to safe water supplies. In Nigeria, the continent’s most populated country, most citizens don’t have regular access to soap and clean water. A 2015 UNICEF survey found that 47 percent of Nigerians don’t wash their hands after defecation.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, health systems remain forever in danger of collapsing under the strain imposed by the high burden of life-threatening communicable diseases coupled with increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This reality in a region where medical infrastructure is lacking. According to the World Health Organization, forty-seven countries in Africa average only nine ICU beds per one million people, some countries with as few as 100 ICU units for the entire population. Add to this the wide discrepancy in quality of care between public and private hospitals. (One of my friends in South Africa needed knee surgery and chose to pay a considerable sum to have the procedure performed at a private facility rather than a free hospital. She said, “I didn’t want to lose a leg.”) Along with the fact that few African countries invest in health care despite a 2001 declaration at a meeting of the African Union where member states vowed to invest 15 percent of their annual budget in health care.
Given the dizzying facts, South Africa could not be thought of as somehow apart from the existential realities of the continent, namely, Third World underdevelopment and Third World corruption. There were fears that Gauteng province alone could see a 60 percent infection rate, nine million out of 15 million people, with 1.5 million becoming gravely ill and thereby overwhelming the health system. There were fears that 15 percent of the country’s population could die. Measures had to be taken. And measures were. On the evening of Tuesday, March 24, President Ramaphosa announced that at midnight Thursday the country would enter a twenty-one-day lockdown to stop the virus in its tracks, an announcement that was met by criticism in some circles, including from some of my fellow African American expatriates.
For weeks, some members of my WhatsApp chat group had been spouting theories that Africans were immune to the disease since there were so few confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the continent. Tellingly, as COVID-19 started to make things go south in America, several members of my group retweeted a post from NBA star Lebron James: “Wakanda sounds good right about now.” Others claimed that the impact of the virus on the continent would be minimal, not be as deadly as in Italy, since less than 2 percent of Africa’s population is over age 65. And still others were touting “traditional” and “natural” cures, including wormwood, Vitamin C and other “immune boosters,” and steam baths.
Putting aside such essentialist and magical thinking, the more informed expressed legitimate concerns that the lockdown could not succeed. “Social distancing” would be impossible to implement in certain parts of the country such as high-density townships where many people cram together in cramped dwellings. And the lockdown set up the possibility of starvation in a country where many live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than two dollars a day, where there are high rates of unemployment—29 percent, although 40 percent for people between the ages of 18 and 35—and where many rely on an “informal economy” (hustling) to put food on the table each day.
The lockdown got off to a shaky start. Citizens feared that markets would run out of food, causing authorities to issue assurances that food was in good supply to prevent panic shopping. While most people remained at home, others did not, some even joyously indulging in “corona” parties and celebrations. The Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula received criticism for wavering on the restrictions and not standing up to the taxi (minibus) industry; the police seemed much more determined to see that taxi drivers comply by the rules. Indeed, the police and the military were mobilized in full. By day 5 of the lockdown, 2000 people had been arrested for noncompliance. However, there were also abuses of power and authority, including incidents of police officers shooting indiscriminately at people, and soldiers forcing violators to perform calisthenics.
The economy took a hit. Four days into the lockdown Moody downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to a “junk” level, suggesting that it only saw a negative economic future for the country. (In 2017, Fitch downgraded five South African banks to a similar junk status.) On March 30, the Rand reached a record low, 17.81 dollars for one Rand, and would continue to fall for some time. These economic blows came when many companies were also hard hit. The sale of all nonessential goods was banned during the lockdown, including homewares, clothing, cigarettes, and alcohol, the latter two in a country where an estimated 15 percent of the population has a “clinical addiction.” As CNN reported, the government’s decision was “influenced by concerns such as compromising the immune system, lowering inhibitions when it comes to social distancing and personal hygiene, and the very serious charge of trying to reduce incidents of domestic violence.” Consumers and producers alike felt the results.
Seven Sisters, a wine named after and produced by the seven sisters of the Brutus family, stated that their company was in danger of going out of business. The sisters wondered what sort of assistance the government would offer them and millions of other small businesses. In a country celebrated worldwide for its wine, the loss of this company would be felt since theirs was one of the few owned by people of color—the sisters are “Colored”—in an industry dominated by white-owned companies.
Turning a negative into a positive, Inverroche Gin, one of the pioneers in the South African craft gin industry, started to produce hand sanitizer.
If nothing else, the wide availability of hand sanitizer in public spaces—supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and other essential operations—gave the sense that the nation was taking the COVID threat seriously. In every store, workers were quick to spray cold liquid or slimy gel on your hands before you could enter the premises. And the Uber drivers who were still operating all wore masks and offered you hand sanitizer upon entering a vehicle. You became accustomed to the smell of rubbing alcohol. You welcomed it.
By day 6 of the lockdown, the nation set about the essential task of testing and contact tracing, taking advantage of the existing large health research and disease-tracing machinery honed by years of coping with its HIV epidemic to assemble a small force of 60 mobile testing units and 10,000 field workers that would in time expand to 30,000. South Africa also has at its disposal private laboratories to process test kits. (The rest of Sub-Saharan Africa is far less prepared and capable. While the World Health Organization under the direction of Ethiopian national Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus continues to stress the importance of “testing, testing, testing,” many countries in the region have to rely on test kits donated by philanthropic individuals, overseas governments, and the African Union, a limitation that could prove catastrophic.
If the medical machinery rolled out smoothly, the everyday workings of government operated through the usual bureaucracy. People entitled to social grants were allowed to collect them early but had to stand in long queues at payouts where underpaid security guards had difficulty enforcing social distancing. Many payouts ran out of cash, although a great number of recipients could only receive their grant in cash since they lacked bank accounts and could therefore not be paid by direct deposit. Criminals took advantage of police preoccupation with the lockdown to burglarize and vandalize empty schools and churches. By day 10 of the lockdown, 2,230 cases of gender-based violence had been reported to the police, for a total of 87,000 incidents over the last year. And while there were fewer car accidents and far fewer murders, rapes, and other violent crimes, police responded to more calls of domestic violence. South Africa ranks high among nations in terms of violence against women, along with alarming rates of children who die from abuse, neglect, and hunger. (One revealing statistic: eleven children die each day in vehicular accidents from lack of car seats.)
How would the republic manage its many ongoing social and economic ills during the lockdown, an exigency made more difficult certainly with the worsening economic plight. By day nine of the lockdown, the Rand would drop to its lowest, 19.05. A news broadcaster on eNCA summed up the many matters at hand, saying that the COVID threat “has accelerated the plethora of challenges we face.”
Since the past is prologue, many expected the lockdown to buckle under failures of leadership. On April 8, day thirteen of the lockdown, President Ramaphosa sanctioned forty-two- year old Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams with a “special leave” for violating the lockdown orders. She’d had lunch at a friend’s home and posted photos on social media, her misconduct and abrogation of her duties coming at a time of wide circulation of misinformation. Earlier that week, a white South African man had posted a video on various social media platforms claiming that the test kits were contaminated with the virus and being used to spread the contagion around the country, a violation of law that led to his arrest. Hard not to see his conspiracy theory as symptomatic of the open wounds of apartheid.
Poet, playwright, and scholar, Sandile Ngidi theorizes that one can best understand the racial dynamics in South Africa by thinking of the country as a psychiatric patient in recovery. “Twenty-six years after apartheid officially ended, South Africa’s complex racialized anxieties continue in the main, and are reflected in gross socioeconomic injustices, a country where whites generally believe black poverty and white wealth are justifiable, and, if needs be, must be violently protected. The lasting impact of colonial/apartheid physical and psychological violence is alive, cold-blooded and ever-wrenching.”
Earlier this year on February 2, the SABC interviewed FW de Klerk, the last apartheid era president, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his address to Parliament, a historically significant moment given that he announced the end of the state of emergency, the unbanning of political parties, the release of political prisoners, and an end to the death penalty. During the interview, de Klerk spoke in a proud and condescending manner that I’ve often encountered in the presence of white liberals in South Africa. He sought opportunities to chastise the broadcaster—“More people died from black-on-black violence than apartheid”—and boasted about the strength of a military that the ANC had no chance of ever defeating, and reiterated his position that he did not agree with the UN’s ruling that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Responding to public outrage in the wake of the interview, the FW de Klerk Foundation issued an unapologetic response that read: "Deplorable as it is, we cannot, from a legal point of view, accept that apartheid can . . . be made a crime against humanity."
Like de Klerk, some liberals in the country can’t stop themselves from indulging in Whitesplaining. I recall a conversation I had a few years ago with a man in Cape Town, who proudly told me about how he had fled the country rather than serve in the army under apartheid, only to go on to complain about the many failures of the ANC—as if black South Africans are somehow unaware of those failures—the corruption, how the ANC had seized land from whites that they failed to give back to the people, and how under Mbeki more black South Africans had died from AIDS than during the many decades of apartheid. Behind such complaints lies the assumption that, while morally wrong, the colonial project got one thing right: black people are incapable of governing themselves.
It only made sense then to recognize that there were thousands of South African citizens who hoped the lockdown would fail.
Under Ramaphosa, the government continued to face monumental obstacles. On day 12, National Education and Health Workers Union took the government to court over the lack of PPE. In short order, the union called on its members to refuse to work without proper protective equipment. Then there was the question of where to house the homeless, an estimated 15,000 people in Joburg alone. Where to move refugees to ensure their safety? How to distribute food to the people who needed it? How to investigate and reprimand abuses of power? And so on.
To the surprise of many, the government found a practical and creative response to every challenge. The proof being in the pudding, by day twenty-one of the lockdown, the number of new infections had started to slow down, the curve flattened. No smoking mirrors or rhetoric. HIV scientist Salim Abdool Karim, who chairs the COVID-19 advisory group under the direction of South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, notes that the testing teams were targeting the “most socially vulnerable communities where [the virus] was most likely to spread.”
Still, taking no chances, the lockdown was extended to the end of April. However, the economic crisis could not be ignored. On the night of April 21, President Ramaphosa unveiled an economic package that included an “extraordinary budget” request of Rand 500 billion (26 billion dollars) in international funding to combat the socioeconomic devastation caused by the COVID crisis. For all of his proactive leadership, Ramaphosa was almost cautious and insightful, noting “Our country and the world we live in will never be the same again.”
Be that as it may, South Africa has been exemplary in its response to the health crisis, a fact that flies in the face of the western narrative that defines Africa only in terms of incompetence, corruption, and underdevelopment, as a continent yet to be and always yet. The wise know how to learn from the past. South Africa was one of the five worst-hit countries of the world during the 1918 flu pandemic. About 300,000 South Africans died within six weeks, six percent of the population, a period that historians call “Black October.” On September 18 of that year, two ships arrived in Cape Town from England carrying over 2000 black South African Labor Corps soldiers who’d engineered projects in France and Belgium. The men failed to be properly quarantined and were allowed to leave Cape Town and carry contagion to every part of the country.
The wise know how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, spoke to this issue, telling Science magazine’s Linda Noordling that South Africa’s “’energetic and evidence-based’ response to COVID-19 ‘starkly contrasts’ with the country’s halting response to its HIV epidemic in the late 1990s and 2000s.”
The wise know when to seek the help of others. The South African government drew on their long-standing relationship with Cuba and sought assistance in battling the health crisis. On the morning of Monday, April 27, Freedom Day, 200 Cuban doctors arrived in the country, part of a contingent of more than 1,000 doctors and other healthcare workers that Cuba is sending to 22 countries on the continent . . . SA has about 30,000 health workers on the ground. That evening, President Ramaphosa delivered his Freedom Day address. He stressed that South Africa has yet to fulfill its democratic mission, that even “as we turn the tide on the coronavirus pandemic, we will still have to confront a contracting economy, unemployment, crime and corruption, a weakened state and other pressing concerns.”
In a recent speech, Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni described Africa as a house with many rooms and doors. If the COVID virus enters through one door, the infection may spread to every room of the house. Museveni’s sagacious metaphor suggests that while we should commend South Africa’s response to the COVID crisis, South Africa cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the continent.
On April 28, one day after Rampahosa gave his Freedom Day address, the ministry of health in Zanzibar announced that seven more people had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of cases in the archipelago to 105 and the total number of cases in Tanzania to 306. Are we to believe that these numbers are accurate? No, for the number of cases would rise with an increase in testing. Equally disturbing, Tanzanian president John Magufuli speculates that the virus doesn’t exist, spreads conspiracy theories, and used test kits on a goat and pawpaw (papaya) to discredit their accuracy.
Africa is a house.
The same day that the Tanzanian ministry of health made their announcement, John Nkengasong, the director of the African Centers for Disease Control, published a sobering piece in Nature, a plea for help from the international community. He writes, “For Africa to get ahead of the pandemic, we need to scale up testing fast,” but the “collapse of global cooperation and a failure of international solidarity have shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market.” Instead of “global solidarity, global protectionism has prevailed, with more than 70 countries imposing restrictions on the export of medical materials . . . ” Nkengasong concludes, “If Africa loses, the world loses.”
Powerful words, although it remains unlikely the wealthy countries of the West share Nkengasong’s position. Indeed, by the time that Nkengasong and the African CDC had prepared its weekly briefing for May 5, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the continent had increased by 42 percent, a sharp rise in reported cases but numbers that still don’t reflect the true extent of infection since at the time of this writing the continent has carried out only 685 tests per million people. By contrast, Europe has carried out 23,000 per million.
As well, authorities will have serious challenges implementing the lockdown measures needed to track and contain the virus on the continent. A report released by the Partnership for Evidence Based Response to COVID-19 found that 69 percent of the people surveyed said they would starve under a fourteen-day lockdown with some people running out of food and money in a week. And many families lack the space to isolate a sick family member.
We must also wonder about the long-lasting health consequences of the COVID crisis for the continent given existing health problems. In their report Tackling COVID-19 in Africa, McKinsey & Company predict that the COVID crisis will lead to an increase in malaria infections. “Under the worst-case scenario, in which all insecticide-treated net (ITN) campaigns are suspended and there is a 75 percent reduction in access to effective antimalarial medicines, the estimated tally of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 would reach 769,000, twice the number of deaths reported in the region in 2018. This would represent a return to malaria mortality levels last seen 20 years ago.” These numbers are troubling. As is, in 2018 Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for approximately 93 percent of all malaria cases and 94 percent of deaths in the world, with two-thirds of deaths among children under the age of five.
Apart from questions of health, Sub-Saharan Africa faces economic devastation as a result of the COVID crisis. McKinsey & Company’s modeling estimates that in the “least-worst case, Africa’s average GDP growth in 2020 would be cut from 3.9 percent (the forecast prior to the crisis) to 0.4 percent. This scenario assumes that Asia experiences a continued recovery from the pandemic, and a gradual economic restart.” In the worst-case scenario, GDP could get cut by “eight percentage points, resulting in a negative growth rate of -3.9 percent.” In short, “Depending on the scenario, Africa’s economies could experience a loss of between $90 billion and $200 billion in 2020.”
Interesting to wonder too how the economics will factor given the already extensive debt African countries owe to China, a country that many have good reason to believe is the latest power bent on exploiting the continent’s rich and extensive resources. (Little attention has been given to China’s role of in the continent’s greatest immediate environmental crisis, the destruction of rosewood forests. The rosewood trees of Senegal have been decimated to provide high-end furniture in China, and the forests of neighboring Gambia face similar extinction.) This year, much has surfaced about the abuse that Africans have suffered at the hands of some Chinese citizens and groups. A video from Kenya showing a Chinese restaurant owner caning one of his employees. A museum exhibit in China where the artist compares African people to animals. A commercial airing on Chinese television where a woman gives a black man a laundry tablet to digest, then puts him into a washing machine, cleansing him of his skin color and African features. There have also been many reports of African workers being evicted from their residencies and thrown onto the streets across cities in China as punishment for their supposed spreading of the virus, an accusation that Chinese officials have called a “misunderstanding.” Certainly, this unjust “misunderstanding” amounts to the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps we are seeing the shape of things to come.
Once COVID fully hits Sub-Saharan Africa it will find a home and never leave, becoming yet another “African” disease, out of sight, out of mind. The World Health Organization is warning that Africa might become the next epicenter of the pandemic, which could kill as many as 190,000 people over the next 12 months.
Although South Africa has done everything it can to contain the COVID outbreak, the country is preparing for the worst. On May 19th, scientists advising the government held a virtual meeting where they offered grim projections for the months ahead. They expect the contagion to peak in either July or September, leaving by November a million people infected, more than 40,000 people dead, and a shortage of ICU beds across the country.
If past is prologue, we might well remember that although Ebola was first identified in 1976, the race to develop a vaccine did not begin until 2014 when it was clear that the disease proved a potential threat to the West. Even a COVID vaccine will not guarantee the eradication of the virus on the continent. The African Center for Biodiversity notes that there is “legitimate reason to fear that Africa will receive vaccine supplies last.”
African lives don’t matter.
In an interview, Kenyan writer and enthusiast on African affairs Kiprop Kimutai spoke candidly to me about the need for Africans to be “vocal this time before the world can easily move on and let the pandemic become an ‘African thing.’” He feels that the way AIDS was “transformed into an ‘African’ disease is a conspiracy in itself. I remember in the late nineties how so many people were dying, when ARVs were available but pharmaceuticals cared less about making them affordable in Africa. Such indifference seems like genocide.”
He goes on to say, “I feel the world, or say global powers, demand to see African bodies as diseased. AIDS for example, was exhibited solely through African bodies, although this was not the case when the disease was first diagnosed. I hope COVID-19 will not end up being an African disease symbolized by dead African bodies.”
May 19, 2020
Johannesburg, South Africa