As countries globally battle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, some African governments naturally have their ears and begging bowls to global western governments for solutions. Unfortunately, some African governments have folded theirs arms waiting for the masters of epistemology to give direction, while others are busy copy pasting what is working in the global western economies without trying out contextual solutions. However, some pro-active African countries have managed to take the bull by its horns by encouraging local institutions not to stay idle, but contribute to searching for diverse solutions, big or small to save and reconstruct meaningful lives for the local population.
A university in Uganda has designed and produced a hands-free water and soap dispenser to use in the coronavirus pandemic period instead of waiting for China to deliver finished products. South Africa has designed and produced mobile testing laboratories for mass testing of the virus to cover a huge population within a short period. Ghana has introduced free electricity, water and a tax holiday. The direction that African countries must take is searching for local sustainable solutions than waiting for them to come from the global west when the global west is equally facing unprecedented challenges. Kudos to the Zambian Ministry of Education that has engaged the Zambia National Broadcasting Cooperation to generate a special TV station specifically to beam live class lessons in different school subjects. However, more of such innovative forward thinking is needed, especially for pupils in rural areas that do not have access to TV sets or the internet.
Unprecedented times calls for unprecedented measures. With the value of the Kwacha weakening against the powerful global west currencies such as the US dollar, essential preventive material in the pandemic period like hand-sanitizers are not only getting scarce, but also becoming almost unaffordable for ordinary Zambians. However, it is becoming common knowledge that alcohol based hand sanitizers are a good alternative in the absence of soap and clean water. Meanwhile Kachasu, although illegal, is readily available behind the scenes in most under-served communities in both the rural and the urban towns in Zambia.
Against this background, the Zambian government should consider temporarily legalising Kachasu so that it can be used as a hand-sanitizer material for people that do not have access to clean water, soap, or any other factory tailored alcohol based hand rub. However, this initiative should go with a deliberate awareness programme on the safer ways to brew, and later use Kachasu as a coronavirus preventive material. The local universities and other ordinary laboratories could be engaged in giving informed guidance on the nontoxic methods of producing Kachasu for use as a hand-sanitizer substitute. This process will not only save lives from the coronavirus, but also give the much needed economic empowerment to families and individuals involved in distilling it.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns people against excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic because it may weaken their immune system, a counsel that must be taken seriously by everyone. However, public health officials, and other social development experts should be in the forefront to develop a useful guide in consultation with the locals on how to utilise local knowledge and locally available resources. The idea of shooting down locally produced knowledge without giving it an opportunity for testing should be condemned. In these unprescented times of the coronavirus, any knowledge that can combat the virus must be tried, and Africa should stand to taste its’ knowledge without the fear for the western epistemologists who always want to lead, and mostly demonise African possible solutions.
African universities should join in the search for the cure and other related interventions, as the various responsible institutions consult locals to generate names for the coronavirus in local languages for easy understanding of its’ social impact on the local populations. After all, African countries, Zambia inclusive have learned so much from tackling epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, Cholera and Ebola that should be put to good use as Africa faces the impact of just another virus. However, what is fundamental for most African countries based on the experiences from the previous epidemics is that, local communities must take the centre stage in responding. This is no abracadabra but reality, as infectious disease outbreaks have a common tendency of developing differently in different communities, usually based on contextual social conditions that only local people may recognise.
Therefore, most control measures such as lockdowns should not just be imposed on local communities as such, like the case with Kafue, but locals should be consulted in offering local knowledge and alternative options. Affected people should fully be involved in the planning and implementation of local measures if epidemics and pandemics have to be contained more effectively. Already in Kafue, local people are pinpointing on the possible social network that the first victim had outside of Kafue town, which makes the work for the medical authorities easier. The dominant social behaviours in each community are key factors in fighting epidemics, and only ordinary local people would be aware of such. Authorities can of course build their prevention models based only on assumptions and general social patterns, but only the real locals know what these practically entail for their particular circumstances.
Consequently, unlike in the global west, it is clear that each community in Africa will have to design its own unique response based on local needs and social behaviours. In most Zambian communities for example, greeting inlaws goes with a very respectable social and physical distancing that authorities should take advantage of when making local awareness programmes. This is something communities already practice, and can only be re-emphasised to encompass a wider scope. The same goes to washing hands, most African communities are already aware of this because of the experiences from other epidemics. Therefore, the awareness programmes should focus more on completely unknown knowledge that communities need to know.
Comparing African coronavirus deaths to Italy’s high mortality rates, it can be attributed to a large proportion of elderly people, as 23% of the population in Italy is over the age of 65. In contrast, less than 2% of Africa’s population is over 65. Based on this, the virus’ mortality rate may be lower on the continent, giving room for African governments to prepare adequately, with local communities fully involved.
Against this background, African governments should avoid abrupt general lockdowns. General lockdowns simply do not fit into the African context, except for a few stable economies that may cope with the gravity of destabilising the entire economic and social system, and rebut it again within a short period. In lockdowns, an ordinary citizen is most hit, as most African governments do not have social welfare systems and fail to administer any centralised strategy to cater for the most hit by the spinoffs of the lockdown. It is common knowledge that for the people living on hand to mouth basis like street vendors, reliant on daily flow of cash to buy food and services, a few days’ lockdown may be the difference between life and death. Lockdowns are also very difficult for people already suffering hardships of unemployment whose survival is provided by friends and relatives through our African ‘Ubuntu’ culture. So, if a lockdown cuts these social ties, adversity becomes destitution, and destitution can lead to civil disobedience, further contravening the implementation of workable pandemic control measures.
Therefore, if basic livelihoods cannot be guaranteed, a complete lockdown is not feasible, as poor people will prefer the gamble of infection to the certainty of starvation. Governments should act with urgency, but act locally by considering local contexts, respecting local knowledge, utilising local resources like Kachasu as a hand sanitizer, improvised prevention material etc. Already, there is a global shortage of prevention material and a shameful scramble among developed countries to get their own supplies – lowering Africa to the back of the queue. On daily supplies, markets, especially for fresh produce must be kept running to avoid starvation, as market goers in conjunction with local leadership devise common prevention modalities such as better hygiene. As a result, local communities and other local stakeholders must be consulted, especially in the rural areas. Authorities such as the Police and the Politicians should therefore avoid treating ordinary people as the problem, but as part of the solution through robust contextual awareness programmes.
By Kabanda Mwansa
The author is a Zambian social commentator and a PhD research fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.