When Covid-19 struck, Western “Africa experts”, philanthropists and journalists rushed to write the continent’s epitaph. Africa would be finished, they argued. With its ramshackle health systems, poverty, incompetent and corrupt governments, bodies of people who had fallen to the coronavirus would pile up on the streets and village paths uncollected and the survivors would flee to the forests. Africa would be finished.
Even in Africa itself, in South Africa they dug thousands of graves in preparation for the Covid-19 dead. But although it’s the most affected country on the continent, most of them lie empty. In Nigeria, beds that were set up in emergency facilities were not taken up.
The coronavirus has still ravaged Africa, and its impact on economies will be very high, but the body count is sharply lower compared to the apocalyptic scenarios. In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had one of the lowest estimates of likely deaths: 190,000. A few pegged the deaths at 300,000 and those who claimed they were being “realistic” at a terrifying 2.5 million. Yet, here we are. As of October 6, Africa CDC’s Covid-19 update reported 1,518,662 total cases and 36,921 deaths. With a population of just over 1.2 billion, Africa’s cases are far lower, proportionally, than any other region but Oceania.
Though barely one per cent of the continent’s population has been tested, there has still been no rise in so-called excess deaths. In fact, several countries have seen the reverse; so, low testing was discounted. A wild rush to explain broke out. There has been some wild-eyed reporting that said it is down to poverty — in other words, the reason the pandemic was supposed to lay Africa to waste is now the reason the continent had so far escaped the worst! That with all those immunisations that poor people get, and the close proximity in which people live in slums allowing some kind of herd immunity, Africa had got a get out of Covid-19 jail card.
Lately, some thoughtfulness has settled on the issue. A youthful population, the fact that Africa has a large rural population which spends a lot of time outdoors, experience in dealing with past epidemics, and so forth, had combined to get keep Covid-19 casualties relatively.
But all this is still educated opinion and modest evidence from early studies. Meanwhile, there is the extremely and equally fallacious African version, that Africans have some kind of immunity, or that this is a “mzungu (White man’s) disease”.
Difficult to understand
Clearly, the many sides of this argument over the virus in Africa still don’t understand the continent. In part, it is because this is a very difficult continent to understand. A few days ago, this was dramatically illustrated in a story about the coffin business in South Africa at the height of the coronavirus rampage. With 682,215 cases, and 17,016 deaths on October 6, far out the most on the continent, you’d think it was a coffin trader’s paradise. Demand was up but business was still bad.
As a puzzled coffin dealer explained it, while people purchased coffins, they bought the cheapest possible, and none of the high-end ones, where the money is. With social-distancing at burials, without funeral parades along the streets, and no elaborate church services, there’s no audience for funeral spectacles. Without an audience to impress with an expensive coffin, about which the dead person’s clan, village and friends would talk about in awe for months to come, a knock-off cardboard coffin was sufficient.
Although he had been in the coffin business for a long time, the coffin trader had only found out, at great financial pain, that funerals were not about the dead. For many South Africans, or, indeed, Africans, they are all really about the egos, pride and reputations of the living.
Another of the many stories of these African puzzles came from the north eastern Karamoja region of Uganda not too long ago. The Karamojong are tough, AK-47-carrying fellows who like to roam with their herds. It has been the mission of many Kampala governments to get them to settle down. One of the many schemes hatched was to build and give them free nice modern houses. The houses remained empty. Why? It had to do with the toilets or latrines.
Like nomads and many other peoples, many Karamojong are superstitious. They believe that if an enemy wants to bewitch you or your cattle, he will cast a spell on your poo. They manage that risk by scattering their waste in the bushes, often when no evil eye is seeing them. To use the toilet at the back of a house would be like putting a GPS location tracker on their waste for adversaries to find — something they weren’t about to do. And, so, most didn’t take up the houses.
It’s easy to ask after the fact; how could all the experts have missed that?
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3