Whilst journalists and commentators have focussed recently on lessons from Asia in relation to the current Covid-19 pandemic, with some referencing pandemics that have hit Europe and North America in the past, a less obvious question to ask is whether there are also lessons from Africa? I would suggest there are – not least as Africa has experienced perhaps more than its fair share of emergencies, including health emergencies, in the period since independence.
I spent the first 15 years of my academic career working in and around refugee camps in Africa, trying to understand the consequences for ordinary people of some of the major humanitarian disasters of the time – the Rwandan genocide and the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone being two prominent examples. In the latter, I worked in the very districts where 10 years later the deadly Ebola virus first emerged. At the time, I never found this work distressing – on the contrary, my experience was that emergencies often bring out the best in human nature. Of course, they often bring out the worst too and I was not in the region for the huge shock of Ebola.
So, as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold across Europe, and threatens Africa too, having already had a heavy toll in Asia, what are the lessons we can draw now from these earlier experiences?
First, the notion that emergencies bring out the best in people, and the key is to work out how this can be built upon. One of my enduring memories of the vast refugee camps for Rwandans who had fled the genocide and moved to Tanzania was the thousands of small gardens that the refugees had planted outside their makeshift tents, to supplement food rations and make sure their families had fresh green vegetables to eat alongside the basic handouts of maize and soya provided by international aid. That there has been something of a run on tomato growbags in the last couple of weeks at the same time as people have stocked up on loo roll and canned goods suggests Brits with access to outside space are not a million miles away from that thinking.
In the UK, positive responses are already in evidence – from the university laboratories that have turned their hand to making hand sanitiser and Covid-19 testing kits through to the millions of people offering to collect shopping for neighbours or taking care of the elderly who have been forced into unwanted isolation. Yes, there are scams; but these have surely been outweighed by the genuine offers of support that could, if sustained, represent a new strength of community and cooperation. So the key question is to engage with these bottom-up initiatives, and work out what kinds of institutional support are best placed to sustain them.
Second, there is the importance of not letting the excellent get in the way of the good. Alexander Kekulé, who has become something of a media phenomenon in Germany for his commentary on the pandemic, has written about how during the Ebola response in West Africa, some international assistance came too late and did no good because it had either missed something critical or was over-engineered. For example, whilst emergency treatment centres were critical in isolating and treating Ebola victims, some were built without having staff to operate them, whilst the only US facility that ever came into operation was a small, high-tech hospital in Monrovia designed for the treatment of aid workers. One of his key conclusions was that ‘the fight against epidemics starts with humans’. In other words, ordinary people often take steps well before they are told to do so, and we need to channel and build on those actions.
Indeed, my own work in the Forest Region of Guinea ten years before the emergence of Ebola, when it was dealing with Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees, recorded at first hand the value of trusting in people. Long before official assistance had arrived, refugees had worked with local authorities to identify places to live and work. Schools had been divided so that local children were taught in the morning in French, and refugees in the afternoon in English. And mechanisms had been devised to support healthcare for refugees through local health clinics. Too often official responses distrusted these local solutions, treating refugees and local people alike as requiring control to prevent them ‘exploiting’ international aid.
A third key learning experience from this period for me was not to treat an emergency as a ‘one-off’, different to ‘normal’ times, but to build on the energy and capacity for innovation generated by emergency circumstances and channel this for the periods that follow. For some years I ran a university module on ‘refugees and development’, the point being that humanitarian assistance and development action could go hand in hand. That this happened too seldom was the big failure of humanitarian responses to disasters, not the disaster themselves. This was something from which we needed to learn.
There are also of course opportunities for learning now. One of my colleagues in Italy told me this week that in his now-online classes, he has pointed out to his students that for the first time they are experiencing ‘involuntary immobility’. This is the lived experience of millions of would-be migrants around the world; it explains their thirst to migrate even under the most challenging and dangerous of circumstances.
There seems little doubt we are in for the long haul on coronavirus. This period will test our human response well beyond recent European experience. But if we can learn from and build on this human response, learning from other places, including those that are less immediately obvious, the potential benefit in the long-term is significant. More to the point, there is surely evidence already that such trust and learning is the best way to fight the virus in the short term.