Anver Versi, the editor of New African magazine, muses on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about ourselves and our values.
First and foremost, we sincerely hope and pray that you and yours are well and coping with the extraordinary measures that have been brought in worldwide to help tide us over this most challenging period.
Africa, by the grace of The Almighty, has so far been spared the ravages in terms of lives lost and people hospitalised we see in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and the US. The death toll in the US at the time of writing in late April was around 45,000 and almost double that for Europe with roughly the same population.
In Africa, the toll so far has been relatively very low, in single digits in some countries, double digits in a few and low hundreds in the North African countries (Algeria, Egypt and Morocco).
In Sub Saharan Africa, South Africa with 3,465 cases and 58 deaths to date has been the hardest hit, followed by Cameroon with 1,163 cases and 43 deaths. Other double-digit death tolls include: Nigeria and DRC (25 each); Mali (17), Kenya (14), Sudan (13), Côte d’Ivoire (11) and Tanzania (10).
The following countries have cases but no deaths so far: Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Eritrea, Chad, Namibia, CAR, Seychelles, Sao Tome and Principe and South Sudan. Lesotho and The Comoros have reported virus free status.
Total number of cases in Africa as at 22 April were 24,137 and deaths stood at 1,171. These statistics are from Worldometer and the WHO and of course subject to change.
The numbers are also likely to be artificially low as many countries have not reported or been in a position to report all Covid-19 related cases or fatalities, but even allowing for that we have to be thankful that so far, the dreaded disease has given Africa only a glancing slap rather than the heavy body blows it has delivered elsewhere.
But cautious optimism should be the watchword – some experts claim that the disease is secretly coiling its way through African societies and that when it raises itself to its full dreadful height, a nightmare could ensue.
The truth is that no one knows. Covid-19 has blindsided the whole world and has left medical experts and governments floundering in its wake. Some of the most advanced countries have made terrible mistakes based on faulty diagnosis and thousands have died as a direct result of this.
Even as China was erecting an impenetrable wall of steel around the original source of the disease, Wuhan, Donald Trump was dismissing it as nothing more than flu that will ‘disappear just like that’.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson went around shaking hands with infected people and a massive horse race event attended by a quarter of a million people was allowed to take place; Italy staged European championship matches in front of vast audiences. In New York, the annual Mardi Gras parade, again involving tens of thousands of participants, was allowed to take place.
There is now no doubt that these mass gatherings gave the virus free rein to infect thousands who in turn, passed on the infection to others before strict social distancing measures slowed down the rate of infection to some extent.
Limits of human knowledge
There is no doubt that this virus has exposed the limits of human medical knowledge and the ineffectiveness of a good deal of its technology. The most advanced countries found themselves as helpless against it as the least developed country in the world.
The only defence against it was to prevent infection by keeping away from the virus when it was being expelled by someone who was infected, i.e. social distancing – the most basic of basic approaches.
For once, a natural agency had levelled the world – Covid-19 made no distinction between the rich or the poor, the advanced or the primitive. To survive, everybody had to go into lockdown.
Great cities which never slept became ghost places; the world’s massive fleets of aircraft, ships, ferries, trains were put into storage; shops, factories, restaurants, stadia, parks, theatres were closed down. The massive arsenals – nuclear missiles, aircraft carriers, bombers, tanks and the whole range of guns designed and created at vast expense against perceived human threats, now stood as useless as a paper boat in a flood.
Only hospitals were busier than ever. The new heroes and heroines were no longer actors, musicians, sports personalities, mega businesspeople or preening politicians; they were the frontline health care workers who took their lives into their hands as they treated the tens of thousands of patients who were flocking into their hospitals. These are the lowest paid in the health hierarchies but now they were making the difference between life and death.
As the lockdown progressed and the usual cacophony of social and business life was silenced, many people heard bird song for the first time of their lives; as the streets were emptied of exhaust-fume belching traffic and carbon disgorging factories, people in many cities were able to see the buildings and structures that had been vague shapes before and in places like India, many were astonished to discover huge mountain ranges that had been invisible before.
We began to notice another astonishing change. Instead of the normal cut-throat competition for a few more pennies, instead of the elaborate schemes to bring this person down or promote that person, instead of the hate-filled bile we had got accustomed to spewing out against this group or that, people were beginning to look at each other with empathy.
People began to see the humanity and what we have in common with each other instead of the differences. The king in his castle and the pauper in his shack were equally alone and equally vulnerable. If Covid-19 came knocking, there was no escape.
Suddenly, possessions, titles, positions became irrelevant. None of these could save you from the Grim Reaper. What remained and remains is the quality of your humanity, your measure as a person.
They say you only know the true dimensions of a person during a crisis. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York has grown in stature as he puts the welfare of his people first while Donald Trump has diminished as he puts his political needs in front of the needs of his nation.
The real value of things
What about Africa? It is understandable that given the paucity of medical facilities and expertise in the continent, there were predictions of massive loss of life. Governments followed the example of other nations where the pandemic was wreaking havoc and imposed some form of lockdown or the other.
But again, the true character of a government is revealed during a crisis. Some governments quickly realised that Africa, where the majority lived from hand to mouth, could not afford a complete lockdown and made adjustments.
Some imposed evening and night curfews, made the wearing of masks mandatory and in some cases, for example, Rwanda, arranged for food to be supplied to all households.
In other countries, wealthy individuals and companies organised food parcels and distributed these to all who needed them. Volunteers from several communities went house to house, helping people obtain necessities and spreading the good cheer and care that are so important.
This was the good, exemplary side of Africa’s response. The ugly side was when the police forces of some countries charged people, beat them and even shot dead several. In some instances, those killed by security forces exceeded those who fell victim to the virus.
This blind brutality is totally unacceptable. No police force in the world has the right to beat up people. It is assault and should be considered a violent crime, punishable by law. It was the modus operandi of the colonial regime who used force on a population that hated them. One of the driving forces of the fight for liberation was precisely because of this sort of police brutality.
There is no place for it in independent Africa. The dignity and physical security of every citizen is enshrined in every constitution. All the police officers who ordered their men to beat people up and those who fired live bullets have committed crimes and must be made to pay for it.
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has warned the country’s police force that he will not tolerate brutality against the poor. The police, he said, are paid by the people to protect them, not harass them. Good man.
Many lessons to learn
We roll on, not knowing when or how this disease will be contained. So far, we have been spared the worst. This period has taught us many lessons and continues to do so. For those who wish to see, it has shown us what is of real value and what is as they say, ‘dirt on the hands’. It has shown us the true nature of people.
Above all, it has shown us that we have only the one life on this our planet and that there is nothing more valuable than that. If we can learn this one lesson, the world can be a very different, very much better place on the other side of this calamity.