Combating the effects of Covid-19 on African communities

Through Abdul Mohamud *

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not express the opinions of my employer or any other organization in which I am involved.

Opinion – A Swedish friend of mine who is studying in the UK called me on Sunday evening. He was coughing and words like “germs” and “droplets” sent shivers down my spine, a situation most can relate to at such times.

Believers pray without social distancing during a Palm Sunday mass at the Full Gospel Bible Fellowship Church in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on April 5, 2020
Photo: AFP

He assured me he was fine. He jokingly reassured me that Covid-19 cannot be transmitted over the phone, and he also doesn’t believe 5G technology was a transmission host.

Thinking about the 5G conspiracy theory, I reminded him that the high level of anxiety the virus has caused many people. We remembered the role of wizards and diviners in African societies during calamities. Our attention immediately shifted to how the African diaspora is coping with the pandemic in Europe, particularly in the UK and in their own country, Sweden.

The speed at which the virus is spreading within the African community is alarming. The African diaspora has been disproportionately represented in Covid-19 statistics. Radio Sweden reported that the Somali community in Sweden had been devastated by the virus.

As of March 24, six out of 15 deaths in the Stockholm area from the virus were Swedes-Somalis, according to the English-speaking station. The Swedish-Somali Medical Association said the lack of awareness at the start may have played a role in this tragedy.

There are stories of young men in Stockholm returning from a football match, to their parents and grandparents, saying they had “just the flu”, unaware that their actions could cause the deaths of their loved ones. These types of scenarios could have contributed to the statistics in Sweden.

My friend and I agreed that the socio-cultural norms of some African communities may have also played a role. He believed that some of the cultural norms had to be confronted in order to save lives.

Here in New Zealand, it is clear that some of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decisions were influenced by what was happening in European countries.

Thoughts on how we might avoid what is happening to the African diaspora in Europe happening in New Zealand filled my mind. As a New Zealand African, balancing the echoes of the past with the promises of modernity is a constant struggle.

I believe that many members of the African community would testify to the struggle to be influenced by our own cultural norms. A government-led national awareness campaign targeting ethnic communities could help strike a healthy balance in this struggle.

Social distancing, a powerful weapon in the fight against the pandemic, seemed an antithesis of socialization. For collectivist societies, socializing is a matter of survival, and standing apart from others is frowned upon. African maxims such as “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together” are invoked on communities to cement community bonds.

There is a plethora of traditional beliefs among African communities regarding the disease. The stigma associated with the disease has in the past proven to be an obstacle in the fight against pandemics. According to UN AIDS statistics, stigma and discrimination almost halted the AIDS response in the early days of the HIV scourge. Those infected were afraid of being tested for fear of being ostracized by their communities.

Cultures of Shame, as in most African societies, have used ostracism as a punishment for those afflicted by calamities. Some traditional African beliefs hold that illnesses are caused by the violation of taboos, witchcraft, anger of ancestors, and deeds of gods. It would be difficult to discourage this age-old cultural norm in these difficult times.

There is also the religious aspect. Islam, for example, teaches that whatever happens in this world is preordained. Unfortunately, this has been misinterpreted by some to mean that we should act in a “normal” way since whatever had to happen would happen. This interpretation goes completely against prophetic traditions, which explicitly ordered that people with contagious diseases be kept away from those who were in good health.

While Islam teaches to trust and have faith in God, this should not be interpreted to mean that one should be reckless and not take any precautionary measures. African churches have not been immune to criticism for their nonchalant approach to Covid-19.

After refusing to close churches, a Tanzanian leader was recently quoted by the media as saying that the “satanic virus cannot thrive in churches”. A Zimbabwe minister also claimed that “Covid-19 was not an African disease, God was punishing the West for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe.”

There is a need to work with New Zealand community organizations, as well as religious leaders, to harness the power of the media to reach out to ethnic communities.

Relevant government agencies must take swift and decisive action to develop strategies to avoid the devastating impact the pandemic has caused on African communities in countries like Sweden.

* Abdul Mohamud is a freelance writer on African culture and affairs

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