Africa Is Not Waiting to Be Saved From the Coronavirus

Africa Is Not Waiting to Be Saved From the Coronavirus

Africa Is Not Waiting to Be Saved From the Coronavirus

If reporting doesn’t improve, the creativity and agency of swaths of humanity will be lost to history.


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As Covid-19 races its way across Africa, there are two stories happening at once. The first is of governments using their armies and militarized police to beat, threaten, and shoot their way to public health. This is the story of Kenyan police killing more people than the disease in the week after its first recorded case and of a pregnant woman dying on the street because Ugandan police would not let her motorcycle taxi take her to a hospital after curfew. It is the story of governments closing their borders too late, diverting money to security instead of hospitals, and waiting for someone from somewhere else to save them.

The second is of communities knitting together their meager resources to fill the gap of failed services and absent states. It is the story of tailors across informal settlements in Nairobi and Mombasa sewing face masks out of scrap fabric and handing them out free after price gouging by commercial suppliers. It is a young man renting speakers, tying them to his motorcycle, and riding through his neighborhood to let people know about a new disease. It is translators offering their services without charge to put together public awareness campaigns in Somali, Maa, Zulu, Lingala, Fan Oromo, or any of the thousands of other languages spoken on the continent. It is markets and small businesses making water jerricans available for mandatory handwashing long before governments required it.

Both of these stories are true, but only the first one is on track to enter the archives of how Africa navigated the pandemic. Journalism, in general, is attuned to picking up failures and lapses: Even the best-intentioned media, premised on demanding accountability, can produce a bias for failures rather than successes. When confronted by a new situation, the punditry and analysis are inclined to pay attention to what is likely to go wrong rather than what might go right. Phil Graham, a former publisher and president of The Washington Post once said, “Journalism is the first draft of history.” Whatever journalists commit to print and broadcast during this period will be among the primary pieces of information that future scholars will analyze to try to understand what we were all doing as the world fell apart. But so far, when it comes to Africa, the first draft is an incomplete and inaccurate story of a continent waiting to be saved. If only the first story enters the archive, the creativity and agency of swaths of humanity will be lost, which will have consequences beyond the pandemic.

An archival record doesn’t pick up everything, usually just what garners the most attention or is considered the most important. An archive, much like museums and other institutions that lay claim to being custodians of history, reflects the interests and predilections of those in power. Museums outside Africa are filled with masks and pots from Africa not necessarily because Africans themselves thought these masks and pots were interesting but because colonizing armies and governments thought they were. A colonial archive would likely contain exhaustive records about a white district commissioner, down to the color of his socks, but not the black woman who worked in his home. It’s not because the latter is uninteresting or even unavailable for documentation; it is because those in power set the tone and the context for what goes into the archive and, subsequently, the stories that history will tell.

This makes the work that journalists are doing to tell the story of Covid-19 even more important. When it comes to Africa, we who do journalism about the continent and especially from the continent know how hard it is to achieve an accurate representation of the state of society on platforms that have inbuilt tropes on deck and ready to launch. Africa is spoken for and spoken about but so rarely allowed to speak, and this allows only a handful of narratives to survive. We get PR-like tales of singular figures triumphant against all odds, the white savior who braves malaria to deliver unprecedented interventions or the flailing state teetering on the edge of collapse. The relative weakness of African media outlets means that the complexities and nuances of what is happening away from power are rarely described, let alone analyzed. The digital has gone some way toward opening up room for other narratives. Al Jazeera English has carved a global niche for deepening reporting from places outside centers of power, and Africa Is a Country publishes critical takes on key issues. But digital archives are notoriously transient, and even the most visible websites can disappear with the flick of a switch.

The archival record of the impact of the 1918 flu in Africa is an excellent example of how people understand agency and creativity in communities with constrained political power. It’s not just about telling an accurate story. It’s about how silences affect what people imagine is possible. When the official record of a community’s history tells them that their ancestors did nothing when faced with near-certain death, they tend to believe it and act as if it were true.

In 1918 a strain of influenza that would come to be known as the Spanish flu ravaged the world. Infected people lost significant lung function as the virus paved the way for bacterial pneumonia. Fluid and detritus accumulated in their lungs, and within days, their skin turned blue, and they died. By some estimates, the outbreak infected 500 million people—about one-third of the world’s population at the time—and killed 20 million to 50 million people, making it the second-deadliest pandemic in recorded history, after the Black Death in the 14th century. Extreme estimates suggest that around 3 percent of the world’s population died, and the knock-on effects included significant political changes around the world. Coming at the end of World War I, the 1918 flu outbreak made that second decade of the 20th century one of the deadliest in history.

The East Africa Protectorate, the British colony that would become the independent nation of Kenya, was not spared. After fighting for various European forces in World War I, African soldiers came home, bringing the disease into the territory. Many traveled inward along the Lunatic Express, the railway line that provided a route to the sea for Uganda, one of Britain’s most profitable colonies of the time. A 2019 article estimated that at the Kenyan coast, the most urbanized and settled region of the fledgling country, the Spanish flu killed 25.3 of every 1,000 people—fewer than the international average but one of the deadliest recorded outbreaks in the territory.

Accurate information about the 1918 flu is difficult enough to come by in most countries, but in colonies like Kenya, the archival record is especially complicated. Much of what exists is the perspective of colonial officers constructing a racist political state. So the archives talk about how black people resisted many of the efforts at quarantine, portraying them as irrational when in fact barring movement was one way the British created pools of forced labor.

In 1897, Queen Victoria declared the protectorate part of the British Empire, but until 1920, many ethnic groups fought back against the violence of colonization with highly organized military campaigns. Between 1893 and 1911, the colonial administration was forced to launch 28 major military operations in the territory, often aimed at suppressing communities that refused to collaborate with the colonizers. The official narrative on colonization in Kenya tends to gloss over the depth and breadth of African resistance to the colonial project, but the fact is that much of the African population did not accept or even tolerate British imperialism.

Yet by 1915, the frequency of these operations had reduced, and the colonial government had begun putting in place the racist legislative structure for domination. Ethnic cantonment was the cornerstone of colonial oppression in Kenya, and severe punishments for leaving designated ethnic areas were a crucial part of turning free black men and women into prison labor. The Native Passes regulation of 1900 and the Native Passes Ordinance of 1903 required Africans to have a pass to leave the district where they lived. The 1906 Master and Servant ordinance contained criminal penalties for black Africans in urban areas who left their work posts without authorization.

Six vagrancy ordinances were passed from 1898 to 1930, each designed to punish black people for their freedom of movement, and none applied to white or Asian populations. In 1915 the Native Registration Ordinance set in motion the kipande system, involving cruel and inhumane punishment for black men over the age of 16 who did not carry a cumbersome document with their biometric details.

Why did the frequency and intensity of political resistance suddenly wane? Africans were dealing with unprecedented violence from the colonial administration. But they were also dealing with outbreaks of diseases that had never been seen in the region before. European colonizers brought with them rinderpest, commonly known as cattle plague, which destroyed much of the indigenous cattle population, and jiggers, a small flealike pest that burrows into feet, crippling the infected person and sometimes leading to gangrene. Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, two historians specializing in Kenya’s colonial era, estimate that the Maasai community, one of the most militant groups resisting the British in East Africa, may have lost up to 40 percent of its population. The pandemics and outbreaks in that first decade of the 20th century decimated populations and made it impossible to mount any coordinated military resistance.

This is the context in which the quarantines and public health interventions to deal with the 1918 flu were deployed, but the archival record doesn’t reflect this. Instead, the record describes ignorant Africans disregarding the interventions of noble Europeans. Resistance to quarantine and enforced cantonment is framed as a rejection of public health initiatives, not part of a broader resistance to the restrictions on freedom of movement placed on the African population. It certainly doesn’t portray a process in which scared and confused urban populations naturally sought the comfort of their extended families in their ethnic cantons rather than face the full violence of the racist colonial state in urban centers. The official story of how Africans behaved during the pandemic lacks empathy and nuance because those in power did not see Africans with empathy and nuance.

The archival record of Africa’s experience with the 1918 flu is incomplete because it is written from the perspective of colonizers who sought to present themselves as a benign force in an otherwise chaotic territory. Colonization was a racist and violent enterprise couched in the language of a civilizing mission, and colonial archives of public health interventions—particularly those affecting freedom of movement—must be read against that reality.

The consequences of these incomplete archives still reverberate anywhere governments are drawing lessons from colonial public health practices. The violence in countries like India, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and other settler colonies echoes the violence of the colonial state in part because the successor independence governments read the violent colonial interventions as logical and necessary. The archive presents violent policing response as a natural and necessary part of a public health crisis response, and the successor governments don’t question that.

The archive does not record the violence of the kipande system that humiliated and assaulted Kenya’s black population as a factor in why Africans may have resisted quarantine measures. As a result, the modern state may not realize that using police to enforce quarantine in informal settlements with a long history of police brutality may be opposed. The archive registers the problem not as a violent state clamping down on a society that they had been brutalizing but as the irrational resistance of natives against the well-meaning efforts of a righteous colonial state. The illusion that some violence is necessary to achieve public health goals because the “native” is inherently resistant to logic is inherited from colonizers and sustained because the archive is rarely critically interrogated.

Archives are not neutral; they’re sites for contestation and projections of power. This is why historians from the global South, like Brenda Sanya, a Kenyan feminist scholar, argue that questioning a nation’s history as represented by the archive is absolutely necessary. An archive is a living thing in which what is explicit and what is silent are equally important. And critically for today, these records are silent on what members of Kenya’s African population did to save themselves during the 1918 flu. Certainly the traditional medical interventions that had been refined over centuries of community health practice must have struggled to respond to a novel virus.

But I don’t believe that African communities faced with widespread death and devastation did nothing other than wait for their oppressors to tap into their benevolent side. African traditional medicine had well-established practices for dealing with outbreaks of familiar diseases. For example, variolation, a precursor to modern-day vaccination in which healthy people were exposed to the blood of infected people to develop resistance to it, was recorded in parts of the continent, including what are now Kenya, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Community health systems existed and were often strong, but the colonizing forces had no interest in them, as they were keen to promote the idea of superior European health systems.

The risk of diminishing the agency of African communities in this way persists. HIV/AIDS has killed an estimated 35 million people globally, and Africa is one of the worst-affected regions. Much like rinderpest and jiggers, the pandemic came from abroad, and the virus insinuated itself into existing social practices. In Western Kenya, for example, the practice of wife inheritance, which leaders in some communities argue provided a social safety net for widows and orphans, created specific vulnerabilities in which women whose partners died of HIV/AIDS transmitted the disease to their new partners and their families or contracted it from their new partners. In Kenya, HIV/AIDS hit communities hard that practiced wife inheritance through the 1990s. As long as African communities didn’t understand the risk of HIV/AIDS, behavior didn’t change, and the virus trounced societies. But communities learned, conduct changed, and Western Kenyans now have robust nonmedical responses to HIV/AIDS.

The same can be said of the Ebola outbreak of 2015. Projections that the outbreak would devastate the populations of the Mano River basin—Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau—were confounded not because a vaccine was developed or because the historically underfunded and ignored health systems magically transformed overnight. Community behavior shifted the trajectory of the outbreak. People developed vocabularies for communicating the threat and the response to it, and funding and other forms of support went to frontline health workers who guided communities through the threat. Faced with novel and complex diseases, African communities did not sit back and wait for the disaster to destroy them. They rallied the best they could with whatever was available.

This pandemic is calling for tools that the media is not accustomed to using, one of which is thinking beyond the news cycle to what the story of this moment will look like 50 or 100 years from now.

Which brings us back to the original challenge: What will the archives say that Africans did during the Covid-19 pandemic? Will the archives tell the story of foreigners going in to help people who were already helping themselves? Or will they tell of a wave of saviors from abroad, framing Africans as passive recipients of foreign aid? How can we capture the complexity and agency of African communities in the face of this pandemic without pandering to simplistic developmental narratives or diminishing the threat of the coronavirus?

This is the task for journalists covering Africa and Covid-19: Hold space for communities that those in power would rather not hear. It is a tremendous challenge. Very few African countries have media markets that can pay for quality, independent investigative and documentary journalism. Many are dependent on Western donor governments to sustain their public health coverage, and this tips the scale in favor of stories that make those organizations look good. Other outlets operate as PR vehicles for their home governments and by extension for the countries that are their strong allies. Few foreign outlets are interested in true partnership with African journalists, and for the few critical journalists, the erosion of press freedom across the continent is devouring whatever space they have to work.

But the archives of the 20th century pandemics, including HIV/AIDS, underscore how important it is for the first draft of history to rise to the challenge. Flawed and partial accounts of pandemics that understate the agency of affected communities and overstate the contribution of foreign interventions can have consequences long after the emergency period. People who don’t see their agency and creativity valued in the official history of how they survived may give that agency away—making room for new eras of colonization.

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