Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Main Actors, Populism and A Tragic View of Covid-19 in Africa and the World.


By Takura Zhangazha*

There have been a number of telling developments around the tragic global spread of the Corona virus (Covid-19).  

In one of the hardest hit European countries, Italy, the mayors of some of its cities went viral on social media telling people to stay at home and stop taking walks or jogs with their dogs.  One mayor went so far as to tell/remind residents something about how all of this is not the equivalent of American actor Will Smith and a dog starring in the dystopian movie, ‘I am legend’. 

In Australia, residents and tourists had to be physically prevented from going to their poplar Bondi beach in defiance of a legal ban. 

Closer to home, there were reports of defiance around the closure of entertainment spaces inclusive of bars in South Africa.

In Tanzania, President Magufuli, insisted that church services would go ahead and insisted that Covid-19 cannot survive in churches.   A move which obviously pandered to a religious electoral base and reflected popular understanding of malady.

Or in Zimbabwe where some African Pentecostal churches keep insisting on meeting despite the advice of the World Health Organisation.  Or the fact of commodity shortages makes many still flock to city centres and markets.   Add to this, political blame games on social media about which political party or leader is handling the situation better and you have a recipe for what I call ‘main-actorism’. A point I will return to later.

The key questions that emerge for me is the motivation at defiance of what are clearly policy positions meant to limit the spread of Covid-19.  And the reality that governments quite literally have to issue final edicts and warnings together with the threat of imprisonment and monetary fines.  

Which means there is either a mistrust of governments’ directives at a time of a global health crisis. Or there is a dangerous nonchalance that betrays how for many survival may be viewed in more individualistic terms that thought of the collective good or public health interest.

So this means that in part, our collective understanding of the seriousness of the situation is subject to assumptions of exceptionalism.  Based on geographical location, class and regrettably in some cases even race (check American President Trump’s labeling  of Covid-19 as ‘Chinese’. He has since retracted the statement. Sort of.)

If you add to the mix social media platforms, hungry as they are for ‘apocalyptic’ content, by way of audiences,  from one geographical location to the next and you have the equivalent of various people sadly assuming it could never happen to ‘them’.  They are only there for the comments. Not to analyze the underlying causes of the rapid spread of Covid-19 let alone the tragic inability of our global public health services to provide treatment to those in need of it. 

This is what I referred to earlier as the main actor syndrome.  A na├»ve assumption that it cannot happen to you.  Only others.  This is where people fight over toilet paper, insist on living ‘normal’ consumerist lives, insist on going to beaches or bars or crosscheck their personal relations with medical personnel in tandem with their bank accounts.

What is even more interesting is the seeming universality of this latter approach.  High levels of individualism together with assumptions of being able to best look after oneself (particularly how to ‘enjoy’ life) is increasingly making it difficult for government emergency directives to be adhered to.

Except of course in China where, as noted by many columnists/opinion leaders now, the direct control the state has on individual lives as well as consumption (yes its called state capitalism) means that as the pandemic occurred, the state acted with characteristic demonstration of the threat of violence for defiance. (Hobbes anyone?) 

What is very important in our African contexts is how we are viewing the whole picture as we try and prevent Covid-19 from spreading further.  While all donations are welcome, we have to have a more organic approach in the short and long term about our public health infrastructure.  Especially how to urgently renovate and improve it to help the many and not the few. 

The question is where do we learn a new public health approach from? It is easy to follow the lead of developed countries when in fact we should be looking at it from a more organic approach. Everyone needs access to public health and treatment regardless of class, ethnicity or race.  But similarly we need to remember that the sole guarantor of this fundamental right to public health is the state.  Not the private health companies. Not that they should not exist.  

But the priority is that the state must always be able to provide public health services at all times.  In pandemics and in normal times. (Crosscheck Cuba's example)

This may sound repetitive or abstract but it is what the situation ostensibly requires.  A lot of forward thinking even as we try and solve the current crisis.  African governments must show greater determination than they are currently doing.  Things are not going to be the same. They cannot be the same.  And the global north may become even more circumspect about interacting with the global south even while donating medical equipment.

All keeping in mind that, as the Italian mayor cited above says, this is not a movie.  There are no main actors that supposedly survive to tell the tale. In this, we are all equal. But in its aftermath there are many who would wish for an unjust public health system. And that is something we must all work to prevent.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)

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