Responding to a pandemic: What can we learn from African scholars?

By Tracy Morison, May 2020

African countries’ responses to the COVID19 pandemic are complicated by an array of economic and health challenges, introduced and entrenched by neo/colonialism and neoliberal economics. Yet, at the same time, the histories and present realities of these settings mean that African scholars have a different perspective on how to respond to the pandemic than those in more privileged settings. In this piece, I reflect on two important lessons that can be learned from African responses.

We are in this together!

An NGO staff member poses for a portrait, as the NGO installs hand washing stations at the Kibera slum in Nairobi. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Given previous experience with infectious disease and many of the social and environmental factors implicated in these, African health scholars are attuned to the importance of considering the wider context of health issues.

African feminist research points to the importance of preventing social disruption and building social solidarity – in opposition to many of the individualistic measures in Western public health responses. As Nigerian feminist writer OluTimehin Adegbeye asserts,

“Social distancing … is a solution that doesn’t grasp a reality that is extremely widespread across Africa: people survive difficulty by coming together as communities of care, not pulling apart in a retreat into individualism”.

This is a lesson for us all: public health measures focused on individual behaviour change alone will have limited impact. Instead, calls are made for holistic approaches to healthcare. In this vein, horizontal interventions are needed, which focus more broadly on both prevention and care. Such interventions also consider general community well-being in order to make it more difficult for rapid disease transmission. Such holistic approaches, importantly, treat public health as connected with other aspects of daily life.

For instance, in imagining how self-isolation might occur in settings where homelessness, low resources, and over-crowding are common, South African public health researcher Manya van Ryneveld states that “this virus will be defeated not so much by hospitals, but by communities acting creatively and responsibly to enable its isolation”, for instance through community-run food kitchens and care centers.

Who is ‘we’?

The sentiment that “we are all in this together” has been widely expressed in response to COVID19. Feminists in Africa have questioned who is being referred to when we say this. Who exactly is ‘we’? They urge us to consider who is overlooked in public health responses, arguing that we need to see the pandemic through the lens of social justice, as an issue of equality and fairness. This means not only eschewing mainstream gender neutral approaches, but also adopting an intersectional view of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and response.

This view is exemplified in the #InclusiveLockdown Twitter campaign. Another example is Nigerien feminist Fati N’zi-Hassane’s #SafeHandsChallenge, which highlights the importance of linguistic access and building social solidarity by inviting Africans to record videos in their local languages and share them on WhatsApp family groups. Similar measures for other African countries have been showcased by Medical and Health Humanities Africa network.


This piece originally appeared as part of a series of short thought pieces related to COVID-19, Daily Life in Extraordinary Times, written by members of Massey University’s Health Psychology team. (Click here for more information on Health Psychology at Massey.)

With thanks to Dr Rama Dieng @SaalaJeng whose twitter thread inspired this blogWhat do feminists have to say on #COVID19. A thread on Resources from (mostly) Global South thinkers.

About the author:

Tracy Morison teaches health psychology and social psychology at Massey University, New Zealand. She is an honorary research associate of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is currently working on a transnational project funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand on Long-Acting Contraceptives. Recent books include: Men’s pathways to parenthood: Silence and heterosexual gendered norms (Morison & Macleod, 2015) and Queer Kinship: South African Perspectives on the Sexual Politics of Family-Making and Belonging (Morison, Lynch, & Reddy, 2019).

Photo credit: Main photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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