March 14, 2020
Sekou Kouyaté (MA) and Elysée Nouvet (PhD)
COVID-19 will not spare Africa. Many of the continent’s health systems are severely under-resourced. These are overwhelmed in the face of outbreaks. Political leaders and individuals responsible for the health of Africans have good cause to worry in the face of this new threat. But for the more general population, at least in Guinea, news of COVID-19 is provoking a different sort of reflection as well.
Coverage of today’s global pandemic in this African country is a clear reminder of the 2013-16 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic. On August 14, 2014, the Guinean government declared a state of public health emergency. Socio-economic consequences were immediate and dramatic. These included a reduction of flights coming into the country, the closure of businesses, the departure of European expatriates, and, with the consequent slow-down in economic activities and lay-offs in the mining sector. This was a period of undeniable hardship. Some did not accept this hardship as necessary. Many viewed the WHO guidelines for epidemic control that were implemented here as exaggerated and discriminatory: “It’s because we’re Africans”. Some rejected the measures on the basis of those implementing these at the national and sub-national levels : representatives from the national government, public health authorities, the army responsible, foreign NGOs. In Guinea, as in many countries, trust in national and global authorities is consistently fragile. This is the result of several factors, including long-standing political and social divisions, and histories of colonial and outsider domination and exploitation.
There is reason to be hopeful that trust of national public health infection control strategies will be different with COVID-19. We have noticed in the last weeks that many of our Guinean colleagues and, in the case of the first author, co-citizens, are remarking on the outbreak control measures taken first by China, neighbouring countries of China, and now by an increasing number of countries in the face of the very real COVID-19 pandemic. What is underlined as notable is that these measures replicate those imposed in West Africa during Ebola: quarantine, reduced flights, limits on the movement of individuals out of affected areas, bans on public gatherings above certain numbers, closure of schools, universities, and places of worship. This is being interpreted and held up by many in the country as a powerful truth: such measures were never reserved for Africans. The dramatic response to COVID-19 by countries far from Africa – Italy, Canada, China – may do much more than curb this pandemic. Such measures, witnessed worldwide, may shift in significant and lasting ways narratives of distrust towards epidemic control measures where these exist.
As of March 12th, Guinea has confirmed its first COVID-19 case. Adherence to infection surveillance and control measures will be key to what happens next. Hopefully, these measures will be recognized in Guinea and elsewhere as necessary, rather than unfair or duplicitous. The populations of countries like Guinea know what stands to be lost under such trying times. They are familiar with recommendations to limit the spread of the disease. It is more than a matter of telling the mice, “The cat is on its way, positions everyone!” Trust is key.
Sekou Kouyate is a social anthropologist and project manager with the Humanitarian Health Ethics research group. He holds a Masters in anthropology and a Masters in development. He is based at the Laboratoire Socio-Anthropologique de la Guinée, in Conakry.
Elysée Nouvet is an anthropologist and assistant professor in the School of Health Studies at the University of Western Ontario. She is a member of the Humanitarian Health Ethics Research Group, and an advisor to the World Health Organization Social Sciences Research Working group (good participatory practices) for COVID-19.
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