Sarah J Owusu of Ghana/Denmark, based in South Africa is co-founder of two story-telling platforms – Collateral Benefits and We Will Lead Africa – that focus on documenting and sharing African perspectives and stories of everyday African leadership in order to shift global narratives. She is an award-winning organisation development practitioner and coach, and applies her expertise to the innovation space through the boutique consultancy, InkDot (www.theinkdot.com).
African countries may be faring better in terms of infection rates and number of deaths associated with COVID-19, but as the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti states: “this new virus can stir up stress levels and trigger mental-health conditions or exacerbate existing ones”. Whilst many African countries have considered mental-health in their COVID-19 response plans, most are only partially funded, or not funded at all.
Getting ahead of this pandemic means acknowledging that health goes beyond the physical. It’s intuitive to assume that health is determined by lifestyle choices like diet, smoking and drinking. Alongside this, we need to include belonging as a fundamental human need.
A 2010 meta-analytic review confirms that the ‘quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental-health but also to both morbidity and mortality’.
A sense of belonging has a direct impact on overall life satisfaction and on our mental-health. So what is a sense of belonging? According to a Science Direct study, it is a person’s experience of involvement in a system or environment – a feeling that one is an integral part of it. Just as we might think of financial resources as a cushion that allows us to absorb financial shocks, a sense of belonging, membership to social groups and access to social support are a critical psychological resource, necessary for wellbeing.
Unsurprisingly, the experience of belonging (or not belonging) runs along the existing rifts in social fabric – for example, unemployment and isolation has a significant negative impact on belonging, two areas where COVID-19 has hit us especially hard.
This understanding of what impacts our wellbeing shows us that strengthening our sense of belonging is not just an individual endeavour; it requires relationships, community and social cohesion. Our mental and physical health – indeed, our survival – is not just in our own hands, but in the collective and shared sense that we exist in a world that will catch us if we fall.
The shared experience of a global pandemic is an opportunity for us to reflect deeply on the interconnectedness of our human experience and our dependence on one another. And within African cultures, the centrality of community may give us a significant advantage, if prioritised.