Africa and the impending death of “COVID Theatre”
Many years ago when I was a preteen, I boarded my first flight during a family weekend getaway to Accra, Ghana. Kotoka International Airport in the 90s was a rather different place to its current gleaming iteration. Back then it was dark and noisy, with signage that was generally not very easy to make out. Clearing immigration and getting to baggage claim was not especially straightforward, and my parents were struggling to pick their way through this unfamiliar airport.
I however, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little jock had no such problems. Even though I had never been there before, it took me very little time to figure out what was where and how to get there. Since our seats were close to the front of the aircraft and we got to disembark early, we were among the first to get to the dimly lit baggage claim area, where I spotted our big family suitcase and immediately lifted it off the conveyor belt.
Seeing me doing this, my dad got irritated and made me put the suitcase back, loudly snapping at me, “Can you see anyone else doing that?!” To my eyes, it seemed obvious that one was supposed to pick one’s suitcase off the baggage conveyor, and that other people were not doing so because we were among the first to get there, but nothing I said made any difference. We stood there and waited all of 20 minutes, as other people filtered in, picked up their bags and walked away. With each person who picked up a suitcase off the belt, it seemed more and more obvious to me that dad had badly misjudged the situation and he should admit it and offer an apology to me. He did not.
Soon everyone else on the flight had got their bags and walked away, with a solitary suitcase making its lonely way around the conveyor belt. At this point we were the only people left at the baggage claim watching our suitcase do this pointless circuit 4 or 5 times. Still we could not do what was painfully obvious as dad continued to fight his private internal civil war with his ego. Finally, after about half an hour of turning us into a spectacle for amused airport workers, he approached a nearby staff member to ask what we should do. A few seconds later, I got the suitcase off the conveyor belt a second time and waited for his apology. When he died about 20 years later, I was still waiting for that apology. It never came.
COVID-19 is now a geopolitical event, not a scientific one
The reason I led with the above anecdote was because right from the start of Nigeria’s engagement strategy for the COVID-19 pandemic last year, it has been evident to me that the response plan has been based entirely on the egos of a few ignorant men, instead of objective, rational and scientific realities. That childhood experience of seeing something that appears simple and obvious, while authority figures tie themselves into knots and cause difficulty for everyone while trying and failing to understand it, closely mirrors the ongoing experience of COVID-19 pandemic management in Africa.
Several times in this column I have asked, “Is COVID-19 an African problem at all?” Looking at the age stratification of the illness caused by the virus, Africa’s age demographics, the type of challenge posed by an 85 percent asymptomatic virus – with a 99.5 percent survival rate – to Africa’s often nonexistent healthcare systems, and the miniscule nature of the real threat compared to ongoing African healthcare disasters like Malaria (which has killed 300,000 people in Nigeria alone this year), how does one look at this picture and pick out COVID-19 as the preeminent healthcare threat to Africa?
None of the responses to this question ever even attempts to engage with these real and important questions however. Like my dad bellowing at me to perform the absurdity of placing a suitcase back onto a conveyor belt out of fear of looking out of place all those years ago, the conventional wisdom that drives COVID-19 response strategies in Africa is “because that is the standard adopted by the rest of the world.” God honestly forbid it, that Africa might someday come up with its own ideas and implement its own solutions that are relevant to its own problems. Perish the thought.
In the late 20th century, my sister and I once spent 30 minutes watching our family suitcase perform the most pointless baggage conveyor solo relay race of all time because of our authority figure’s ignorance, fear and ego-driven inertia. In the 21st century, Africa now looks on as its policymakers and authority figures turn COVID-19 into a series of local and continental trade barriers, public contract bonanzas, police brutality extravaganzas, power-grab legislations, educational catastrophes (such as Uganda where schools are still closed), and every other kind of outcome EXCEPT improving healthcare or COVID-19 pandemic outcomes.
The world too, is happy to reward African governments for carrying on with the pointless and woefully ineffective set of eye-service protocols I have termed “COVID theatre.” Whenever anyone bothers to consult actual data, such as that from the Copenhagen Consensus Centre’s COVID-19 Cost-Benefit study, it becomes clear that COVID theatre in Africa has killed and compromised the lives and futures of far more Africans than the lives it has allegedly saved from this deadly virus with a survival rate significantly higher than that of Malaria.
In a world where African lives hardly register on the Lives-That-Matter-o-meter however, I suppose it is to be expected that African deaths – the real ones resulting from Malaria, Cholera, Typhoid, conflict and starvation, not the imaginary ones from The Economist magazine’s computer simulations – are not as important as the global COVID-19 narrative. This pandemic has now become a full-fledged geopolitical event, with policy actions completely divorced from objective science and rationality, and fully aligned with geopolitical alliances, economic corridors and petty racisms. And that is why Africa needs to get off the bus now.
Time for Africa to finally dispense with COVID Theatre
Hands up if you are one of the people who realised for the first time over the past week, that South Africa actually has a number of world-leading genome research and sequencing institutions. I am one of these people. The reason I along with so many others found out this fact, was that after South Africa was loudly announced as the outbreak epicentre of a “terrifying” and “deadly” new variant of the SARS COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, followed by travel bans and restrictions up to the neck, it then emerged that South Africa was NOT in fact the epicentre of the new viral outbreak and its terrifying global death toll of…zero.
What actually happened in fact, was that South African genome sequencing technology identified the new strain in samples taken from European travellers in South Africa, and the country then did what is supposedly the right thing to do – it reported the discovery to the relevant international bodies. Instead of being recognised or rewarded for doing good work for the benefit of humanity however, the world outside Africa responded by pointedly locking the entire Southern African region out of its economic orbit again. For that part of the continent, which has a sizeable tourism economy, this is economic vandalism that will come with a death toll – a real human death toll significantly higher than the Omicron variant’s alarming death toll of zero. Some of the countries locked out do not even have a single case of this “terrifying” virus strain, so clearly these decisions were not based on science, but on politics.
The politics of scaremongering, alarmism, racism, otherisation, xenophobia, anti-immigration, nativity and plain old neo-fascism have come together into one toxic COVID-politics soup, which Africa has dutifully slurped for almost 2 years. Enough is enough. It is time for Africa to stop stabbing itself through the heart with a Samurai sword in an attempt to prove to the world happy that it will jump through any and all hoops set for it. As the South African example shows, even after murdering your economy with a pointless lockdown and dutifully jumping through every arbitrary hoop, politics and economics still trump the science all day, every day and Sunday.
Africa needs to face its own problems now and stop trying to play in the global COVID-19 Olympics. We are not equipped to play the same duplicitous geopolitical games as more powerful blocs, and we are hurting our own internal trade and AfCFTA implementation because of a futile attempt to abide by arbitrary rules and standards that nobody actually respects or believes in. It is time to drop those ridiculous air travel restrictions on the continent where hundreds of thousands of people move freely and without documentation across its loose land borders every day. It is time to accept our situation for what it is and play the game that suits our own aims and aspirations.
Because as we now know, whether we compete in the World COVID Olympics or not, it makes no difference to our health outcomes or our likelihood of ending up with “Red List” next to the names of our countries, despite having 0 cases and having all the compliance in the world.
When you are playing a game and you discover that it is rigged, you do not keep on playing and hope that the harder you play, the less rigged it will become.
You get up and walk away.